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Childhood Obesity - The Future of Children

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The Future
of Children
PRINCETON - BROOKINGS
Childhood
Obesity
VOLUME 16 NUMBER 1 SPRING 2006
3
Introducing the Issue
19
Childhood Obesity: Trends and Potential Causes
47
The Consequences of Childhood Overweight and Obesity
69
Markets and Childhood Obesity Policy
89
The Role of Built Environments in Physical Activity, Eating,
and Obesity in Childhood
109
The Role of Schools in Obesity Prevention
143
The Role of Child Care Settings in Obesity Prevention
169
The Role of Parents in Preventing Childhood Obesity
187
Targeting Interventions for Ethnic Minority and
Low-Income Populations
209
Treating Child Obesity and Associated Medical Conditions
A P U B L I C AT I O N O F T H E W O O D R O W W I L S O N S C H O O L O F P U B L I C A N D I N T E R N AT I O N A L A F FA I R S AT
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY AND THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION
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The Future of Children seeks to translate high-level research into information that is useful to
policymakers, practitioners, and the media.
The Future of Children is a publication of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and the Brookings Institution.
Senior Editorial Staff
Journal Staff
Sara McLanahan
Editor-in-Chief
Princeton University
Director of the Center for Research on
Child Wellbeing and Professor of Sociology
and Public Affairs
Elisabeth Hirschhorn Donahue
Associate Editor
Princeton University
Ron Haskins
Senior Editor
Brookings Institution
Senior Fellow, Economic Studies Program
Christina Paxson
Senior Editor
Princeton University
Director of the Center for Health and
Wellbeing and Professor of Economics and
Public Affairs
Cecilia Rouse
Senior Editor
Princeton University
Director of the Education Research Section
and Professor of Economics and Public
Affairs
Brenda Szittya
Managing Editor
Brookings Institution
Andrew Yarrow
Outreach Director
Brookings Institution
Lisa Markman
Senior Outreach Coordinator
Princeton University
Julie Clover
Outreach Coordinator
Brookings Institution
Anne Hardenbergh
Editorial Assistant
Brookings Institution
Stacey O’Brien
Webmaster
Princeton University
Isabel Sawhill
Senior Editor
Brookings Institution
Vice President and Director, Economic
Studies Program
The Future of Children would like to thank the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the
Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and the W. K. Kellogg
Foundation for their generous support.
ISSN: 1550-1558
ISBN-13: 978-0-8157-5562-3
ISBN-10: 0-8157-5562-7
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Board of Advisors
Jeanne Brooks-Gunn
Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of
Child Development and Education,
Teachers College and College of Physicians
and Surgeons, Columbia University
Kay S. Hymowitz
Senior Fellow and Contributing Editor,
Manhattan Institute for Policy Research
Peter Budetti
Bartlett Foundation Professor and Chairman,
Department of Health Administration and
Policy, University of Oklahoma
Rebecca Maynard
University Trustee Professor of Education
and Social Policy, University of Pennsylvania
Judith Feder
Dean of Public Policy, Georgetown
University
William Galston
Interim Dean, School of Public Policy,
University of Maryland
Jean B. Grossman
Senior Vice President for Research,
Public/Private Ventures, and Lecturer in
Economics and Public Affairs,
Princeton University
Charles N. Kahn III
President, Federation of American Hospitals
Marguerite W. Sallee
President and CEO
America’s Promise
Lynn Thoman
Managing Partner, Corporate Perspectives
Heather B. Weiss
Director, Harvard Family Research Project,
Harvard University
Amy Wilkins
The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily represent the views of the Woodrow
Wilson School at Princeton University or the Brookings Institution.
The Future of Children is copyrighted by Princeton University and the Brookings Institution,
all rights reserved. Authorization to photocopy articles for personal use is authorized by The
Future of Children. Reprinting is also allowed, so long as the journal article is properly given
this attribution: “From The Future of Children, a publication of The Woodrow Wilson School
of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and the Brookings Institution.” It is
the current policy of the journal not to charge for reprinting, but this policy is subject to
change.
To purchase a subscription, access free electronic copies, or sign up for our e-newsletter, go to
our website, www.futureofchildren.org. If you would like additional information about the journal, please send questions to [email protected]
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The Future
of Children
PRINCETON - BROOKINGS
VOLUME 16
NUMBER 1
SPRING 2006
Childhood Obesity
3
Introducing the Issue by Christina Paxson, Elisabeth Donahue,
C. Tracy Orleans, and Jeanne Ann Grisso
19
Childhood Obesity: Trends and Potential Causes
by Patricia M. Anderson and Kristin F. Butcher
47
The Consequences of Childhood Overweight and Obesity
by Stephen R. Daniels
69
Markets and Childhood Obesity Policy by John Cawley
89
The Role of Built Environments in Physical Activity, Eating, and
Obesity in Childhood by James F. Sallis and Karen Glanz
109
The Role of Schools in Obesity Prevention by Mary Story,
Karen M. Kaphingst, and Simone French
143
The Role of Child Care Settings in Obesity Prevention by Mary Story,
Karen M. Kaphingst, and Simone French
169
The Role of Parents in Preventing Childhood Obesity by Ana C.
Lindsay, Katarina M. Sussner, Juhee Kim, and Steven Gortmaker
187
Targeting Interventions for Ethnic Minority and Low-Income
Populations by Shiriki Kumanyika and Sonya Grier
209
Treating Child Obesity and Associated Medical Conditions
by Sonia Caprio
w w w. f u t u r e o f c h i l d r e n . o r g
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Introducing the Issue
Christina Paxson, Elisabeth Donahue, C. Tracy Orleans,
and Jeanne Ann Grisso
P
ediatricians, parents, and policymakers alike are concerned
about high and rising rates of
overweight and obesity among
U.S. children. Over the past
three decades, the share of children who are
considered overweight or obese has doubled,
from 15 percent in the 1970s to nearly 30
percent today, while the share of children
who are considered obese has tripled. The
problem of childhood obesity has captured
public attention and is regularly featured on
the evening news, in school newsletters, and
in articles in parenting magazines. Increasingly policymakers are recognizing the need
for action. In 2004, the Institute of Medicine
released a report calling the prevention of
childhood obesity a national priority.1
Despite all the public attention, no one is
sure which policies and programs will most
effectively combat childhood obesity. The
uncertainty reflects in part a lack of agreement about what caused obesity to increase
in the first place. Theories abound. The “epidemic” in childhood obesity has been attrib-
uted to various factors: increases in television
and computer game use that have led to a
new generation of “couch potatoes”; the explosive proliferation of fast-food restaurants,
many of which market their products to children through media campaigns that tout tieins to children’s movies and TV shows; increases in sugary and fat-laden foods
displayed at children’s eye level in supermarkets and advertised on TV; schools that offer
children junk food and soda while scaling
back physical education classes and recess;
working parents who are unable to find the
time or energy to cook nutritious meals or supervise outdoor playtime; the exodus of grocery stores from urban centers, sharply reducing access to affordable fresh fruits and
vegetables; and suburban sprawl and urban
crime, both of which keep children away
from outdoor activities. The problem is not
the lack of explanations for the increase in
childhood obesity, but the abundance of
them. In such circumstances, deciding which
of the possible causes to address first and
which policies and programs will be most effective is not easy.
www.futureofchildren.org
Christina Paxson is a senior editor of The Future of Children, the director of the Center for Health and Wellbeing, and a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University. Elisabeth Donahue is associate editor of The Future of Children and a lecturer at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. C. Tracy Orleans is a senior scientist at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Jeanne Ann Grisso is a
senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
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This issue of The Future of Children lays out
the evidence on the multiple causes, consequences, and methods of dealing with childhood obesity. Now is an opportune time to
assess what is and is not known. Many policymakers, having become convinced that childhood obesity is indeed a problem, are searching for effective ways to combat it. The Child
Nutrition and WIC (Women, Infants, and
Children) Reauthorization Act of 2004, for
example, responding in large measure to the
rise in childhood obesity, requires school districts that participate in the National School
Lunch Program or School Breakfast Program
to develop a local wellness policy by the beginning of the 2006–07 school year. Many
states are developing broader programs
aimed at curbing obesity and improving
health among their citizens. The “Healthy
Arkansas” initiative, launched in 2004,
aims—ambitiously—to reduce the state’s rate
of childhood obesity from 11 percent to 5
percent. Other states are taking similar steps,
many with the support of the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),
which in 2005–06 gave funds to twenty-one
states to build capacity in the area of obesity
and to seven more to implement programs.
But while the policymakers’ desire to reduce
obesity is clear, state and federal budgets are
stretched thin. It is crucial to develop programs and policies that are effective and can
be implemented at reasonable cost.
Why Should We Care about
Childhood Obesity?
Although there may not be universal agreement on what caused the increase in childhood obesity, there is fairly widespread consensus on several important points. The first
is that obesity in general, and childhood obesity in particular, has serious adverse health
consequences. Obesity causes many health
problems, as Stephen Daniels documents in
4
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
his article in this volume. Heart disease, high
blood pressure, hardening of the arteries,
type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, high
cholesterol, asthma, sleep disorders, liver disease, orthopedic complications, and mental
health problems are just some of the health
complications of carrying excess weight. The
difficulty for children is twofold. First, many
obese children today are developing health
problems that once afflicted only adults.
These children thus have to cope with
chronic illnesses for an unusually extended
period of time. Living with type 2 diabetes
beginning around age fifty is one thing; living
with it from age sixteen is quite another. Second, in obese children, such health problems
as heart disease begin, almost invisibly, earlier in life than they do in normal-weight children. Even if the disease is not diagnosed
until adulthood, it begins taking its physical
toll sooner, perhaps resulting in more complications and a less healthy life. The possibility
has even been raised that given the increasing prevalence of severe childhood obesity,
children today may live less healthy and
shorter lives than their parents.2 Although
this claim is controversial, it is dramatic
enough to give us pause and reinforce the
idea that childhood obesity is far more than a
cosmetic concern.
The increase in obesity is an economic issue
as well. Estimates of the costs of treating
obese children are relatively small but rising
rapidly. For example, Guijing Wang and
William Dietz estimate that hospital costs of
treating children for obesity-associated conditions rose from $35 million to $127 million
(in 2001 constant dollar values) from
1979–81 to 1997–99.3 Costs of treating adult
obesity and its attendant health problems are
far more substantial. Roland Sturm estimates
that health care costs (including inpatient
costs and costs of ambulatory care) of non-
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Introducing the Issue
elderly obese adults are 36 percent greater
than those of the non-obese, while costs for
medicines are 77 percent greater.4 The cost
differences between obese and non-obese
adults are even greater than those between
smokers and nonsmokers. Eric Finkelstein
and several colleagues conclude that in 1998
the nation spent between $51.5 and $78.5
billion on health care related to overweight
and obesity among adults. The upper bound
on these estimates, based on what the authors judge the better of their two data
sources, corresponds to 9.1 percent of total
annual medical spending in the United
States.5 Roughly half of this spending was
publicly funded—paid for by all Americans
through Medicaid and Medicare, the government’s health programs for the poor and elderly. And ever higher rates of obesity will
burden society with other costs. Obese adults
may be more likely than their normal-weight
counterparts to become disabled before retirement, lowering their earnings and raising
the costs of the federal disability insurance
system, and may require more nursing home
care as they move into retirement.6
If the heaviest health and economic burdens
of obesity are borne by adults instead of children, why should the focus be on childhood
obesity rather than adult obesity? There are
two key reasons to focus on children. First,
those who are overweight and obese as adolescents are much more likely than others to
become obese as adults.7 Second, it is quite
difficult for obese adults and children to shed
excess weight. Although the health professions have developed new drugs and medical
procedures for treating obesity-related health
problems, these procedures are expensive
and do not counter all such problems. Preventing obesity in childhood must be the centerpiece of plans to reduce both the healthrelated and economic costs of obesity.
A final point of broad consensus is that childhood obesity is best viewed as a societal problem reflecting the interactive influences of
environment, biology, and behavior, rather
than as an individual medical illness. Most
agree that the nation has seen dramatic
changes in the past thirty years in the ways
Americans work, live, and eat. Broad societal
and environmental trends have engineered
routine physical activity out of everyday life
for most Americans and made low-nutrition,
A final point of broad
consensus is that childhood
obesity is best viewed as a
societal problem reflecting the
interactive influences of
environment, biology, and
behavior, rather than as an
individual medical illness.
energy-dense foods and beverages more accessible, affordable, and appealing than more
healthful foods. Although reducing obesity requires changes in behaviors surrounding eating and physical activity, strategies that rely
only on individual “self-control” are unlikely
to be effective in environments that are conducive to poor eating habits and sedentary activity. This is especially true for children, who
don’t control the environments in which they
live, learn, and play. In addition, children
have a more limited capacity to make informed choices about what is healthful and
what is not. For this reason, there is a clear rationale for modifying children’s environments
to make it easier for them to be physically active and to make healthful food choices, thus
reducing their chances of becoming obese.
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Defining obesity as a societal issue does not
imply that all children are at equal risk of
gaining too much weight. The articles in this
volume indicate that some groups of children—in particular, children from lowincome families and from ethnic minority
groups—are at a higher risk of becoming
obese. Evidence presented in this volume indicates that the obesity crisis is also a result of
the interplay between people’s genes and environments. While humans may be hardwired to overeat in times of plenty, those with
a greater genetic propensity for weight gain
may be more likely to gain weight in an environment that promotes or encourages unhealthful eating and minimal physical activity.
The idea that susceptibility to obesity is genetic has led some to speculate that it will
one day be possible to tailor interventions toward those with predispositions to obesity.
For now, however, broader policies that alter
children’s environments are the only realistic
options.
asked another researcher to document the effects that these trends have had on the health
of those who become obese as children.
What Does This Volume Do?
Common Issues: Definitions and
Standards of Evidence
This volume is a collection of articles that
present up-to-date literature reviews and
analyses written by leading researchers and
experts from many disciplines. The goal of
the issue is to promote effective policies and
programs targeting childhood obesity by providing timely, objective information based on
the best available research on this topic.
The development of effective strategies to
prevent childhood obesity must be informed
by an understanding of why obesity has risen
so fast and so much in the past thirty years.
Thus, we asked one pair of researchers to
document the trends in childhood obesity,
paying careful attention to the timing of the
increase in obesity trends compared with the
timing of changes in the environment that
may have aided the increase in weight. We
6
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
To identify effective strategies for reducing
rates of overweight and obesity among children, we focused on several broad domains
of children’s environments—the marketplace, the built environment, schools, child
care providers, and homes—that might be
modified to reduce obesity. We, therefore,
asked researchers to present the best evidence on the role of each of these domains in
the development of overweight and obesity
and to assess strategies for keeping children
at healthy weights. Finally, we asked a pair of
researchers to consider issues that are unique
to ethnic minority and low-income children,
and another researcher to document how
those in the medical community—particularly pediatricians—are handling the health
problems that come with childhood obesity
when prevention efforts fail.
Because childhood overweight and obesity
are not always defined uniformly across studies, a note about definitions is warranted. Unless otherwise noted, all articles in this volume follow the common convention of
defining overweight and obesity in terms of
“body mass index,” a measure of how much a
person weighs relative to how tall that person
is. Specifically, the body mass index (BMI) is
equal to weight (in kilograms) divided by
height (in meters) squared.8 For adults, the
CDC identifies those with BMI values at or
above 25 but less than 30 as overweight but
not obese and those with BMIs at or above
30 as obese. For example, an adult who is
5 feet and 9 inches tall would be considered
overweight at between 169 and 202 pounds
and obese at 203 pounds or more.
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Introducing the Issue
As Patricia Anderson and Kristin Butcher
note in their article, however, the conventional definitions for children and adolescents
are somewhat different, because normal BMI
values change throughout childhood. Instead,
children’s levels of adiposity, or fatness, are assessed by comparing their BMI values with
those of a fixed reference group of U.S. children of the same age and sex. Children at or
above the 85th percentile of the BMI distribution—meaning that at least 85 percent of
children of the same age and sex in the reference group had lower values of BMI—are
often defined as being overweight, and those
at or above the 95th percentile of the distribution for the reference group are often defined to be obese. Although researchers commonly agree that the 85th and 95th
percentiles are appropriate cutoffs, not all use
the same sets of labels to define children who
exceed these cutoffs. The CDC and some researchers refer to children at or above the
85th percentile as being “at risk for overweight” and those at or above the 95th percentile as being “overweight.”9 Most of the articles in this volume, however, use the labels
“overweight” and “obese” for parsimony and
to be consistent with the adult definitions. Finally, in speaking generally, our authors often
use the term “childhood obesity” to refer to
both overweight and obesity as seen in both
children and adolescents. The distinctions between overweight and obesity are made clear
when it is important to do so.
Many of the articles in this volume review evidence on how various features of the environment are related to overweight and obesity. Assessing the quality of that evidence is
important in developing effective programs
and policies. For example, we may want to
know whether children who are breast-fed
are less likely to become obese. If so, “preventing obesity” can be added to the long list
of benefits of breast-feeding. Similarly, we
may want to establish whether children who
live in neighborhoods with more fast-food
restaurants or who attend schools with vending machines stocked with low-nutrient,
high-calorie foods and beverages are more
likely to become obese. For most of the topics discussed in this volume, we do not yet
have evidence that firmly establishes causeand-effect relationships. For example, in
their article on the built environment, James
Sallis and Karen Glanz note that evidence
The idea that susceptibility
to obesity is genetic has led
some to speculate that it will
one day be possible to
tailor interventions toward
those with predispositions
to obesity.
that people who live near parks are more
physically active could suggest that easy access to parks is a cause of that physical activity. But it could also be that more physically
active people choose to live near parks. So
far, research has not conclusively established
that proximity to parks reduces obesity.
Evidence on other topics is less equivocal, although often not definitive. Some studies
carefully account for the factors that could be
linked with obesity but that do not reflect
causal relationships. Others rely on comparisons of individuals’ behaviors and body
weights before and after policy changes or
programs are put into place. Finally, in a
small but growing body of evidence based on
experimental studies, children are randomly
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assigned to interventions, such as programs
designed to reduce TV viewing or to improve
nutrition, which may or may not be effective.
Comparing the weights of children assigned
to the intervention with the weights of those
in a control group provides conclusive evidence of the specific intervention’s effectiveness among the children being studied. Of
course, as Sallis and Glanz point out, randomized interventions are rarely feasible for
large-scale programs such as park construction or changes in a city’s zoning laws. The
quality of available evidence necessarily
varies from topic to topic. For the articles in
this volume, we have asked the authors to review the best evidence available on their topics and to make it clear how firmly the evidence establishes causal relationships.
What We Have Learned
Each article in the volume contains a detailed
discussion of recent evidence on childhood
obesity. We briefly summarize each article’s
chief findings below.
Documenting the Trends
Patricia Anderson and Kristin Butcher document trends in childhood obesity and examine the possible underlying causes of the obesity epidemic. They note that the increase in
childhood obesity rates began between 1980
and 1988, and then they assess whether the
timing of various changes in the children’s environment coincides with the observed increase in obesity. Among the changes that
have affected children’s energy intake during
the critical time period are increases in the
availability of energy-dense, high-calorie
foods at school; in the consumption of soda
and other sugar-sweetened beverages; in the
advertising of these products to children; and
in dual-career or single-parent working families that may have also increased demand for
food away from home or for preprepared
8
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
foods. Changes that have reduced energy expenditure over the critical time period include less walking to school and more travel
in cars; changes in the built environment and
in parents’ work lives that make it more difficult for children to engage in safe, unsupervised (or lightly supervised) physical activity;
and possibly more time spent in sedentary activities, such as viewing television, using computers, and playing video games. Anderson
and Butcher find no single critical factor that
has led to increases in children’s obesity.
Rather, many complementary changes have
simultaneously increased children’s energy intake and decreased their energy expenditure.
How Obesity Harms Children’s Health
Stephen Daniels documents the heavy toll
that the obesity epidemic is taking on the
health of the nation’s children. He notes that
many obesity-related health conditions, such
as type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure,
that were once seen almost exclusively in
adults are now being seen in children and
with increasing frequency. Obesity affects
many systems of the body—cardiovascular,
pulmonary, gastrointestinal, orthopedic—and
although adult obesity damages each, childhood obesity often exacerbates the damage.
For example, the processes that lead to a
heart attack or stroke often take decades to
develop into overt disease. Obese children
may thus suffer the adverse effects of cardiovascular disease at a younger age than their
parents would despite the advent of new
drugs to treat some of these problems. They
also suffer from higher rates of depression,
greater difficulty in peer relationships, and
poorer quality of life than their normalweight counterparts.
The Role of Markets
In the first of five articles that survey in detail
the environments that may have contributed
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Introducing the Issue
to increasing childhood obesity, John Cawley
focuses on the role of markets. He first documents important market changes, such as increases in the costs of preparing foods at
home relative to eating out, that may have
contributed to the increase in obesity. He
then lays out three economic rationales to
justify government intervention in markets to
reduce obesity. First, because free markets
generally underprovide information, the government may intervene to provide consumers
with information they need to make healthy
choices. Second, because society bears the
soaring costs of obesity, the government may
intervene to lower the costs to taxpayers.
Third, because children are not what economists call “rational consumers”—that is, they
cannot evaluate information critically and
weigh the future consequences of their actions—the government may intervene to educate them and help them make better
choices. Cawley assesses an array of marketbased policy interventions and concludes that
the most promising policies are those that reduce advertising targeted to children, increase the incentives for food manufacturers
and restaurants to provide more nutritious
choices, and improve the quality of foods that
schools provide to children, although further
evidence on their cost-effectiveness is
required.
Changes in the Built Environment
Over the past forty years, the built environment in the United States has changed in
ways that have promoted sedentary lifestyles
and less healthful diets. James Sallis and
Karen Glanz conclude that although researchers have found many links between the
built environment and children’s physical activity, they have yet to find definitive evidence that aspects of the built environment
promote obesity. For example, children and
adolescents with easy access to recreational
facilities are more active than those without
such access, and few of these facilities exist in
low-income neighborhoods. Likewise, safe
and short routes to school make it easier for
children to walk and cycle to school. But,
given the paucity of research, researchers
cannot yet establish conclusively that more
access to recreation or more active commuting would reduce rates of obesity or even
identify which kinds of environmental
changes are most likely to promote greater
physical activity. Recent changes in the nutrition environment, including greater reliance
on convenience foods and fast foods, a lack of
access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and expanding portion sizes, are also believed to
contribute to the epidemic of childhood obesity. But, again, conclusive evidence that
changes in the nutrition environment will reduce rates of obesity does not yet exist.
Changes in Schools
Mary Story, Karen Kaphingst, and Simone
French demonstrate that U.S. schools offer
many opportunities for developing obesityprevention strategies. They explain that
meals at school are available both through
the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s school
breakfast and lunch programs and through
“competitive foods” sold à la carte in cafeterias, vending machines, and snack bars.
School breakfasts and school lunches must
meet federal nutrition standards, but competitive foods are exempt from such requirements. While schools argue that budget pressures force them to sell popular but
nutritionally poor foods Г la carte, limited evidence shows that schools can offer students
more healthful Г la carte choices and not lose
money. In fact, some states are limiting sales
of nonnutritious foods, and many of the nation’s largest school districts restrict competitive foods. Other pressures can compromise
schools’ efforts to provide comprehensive
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physical activity programs. As states use standardized tests to hold schools and students
academically accountable, schools view physical education and recess as lower priorities.
Yet some states are promoting more physical
activity in schools. In addition, randomized
evaluations of a small number of schoolbased interventions have shown success at reducing weight gain among children. These
interventions typically involve components
that teach children about nutrition, promote
reductions in television viewing, and engage
children in physical activity. Many also involve parents to promote more healthful eating and greater physical activity when children are not in school. These studies indicate
that school-based programs, policies, and environments can make a difference in childhood obesity.
Changes in Child Care
Mary Story, Simone French, and Karen
Kaphingst also acknowledge that researchers
know relatively little about either the nutrition or the physical activity environments in
the nation’s child care facilities, though existing research suggests that the nutritional
quality of meals and snacks may be poor and
activity levels may be inadequate. Part of the
problem is that no uniform standards apply
to nutritional or physical activity offerings in
child care centers. With the exception of the
federal Head Start program, which has federal performance standards for nutrition and
physical activity, child care facilities are regulated by states, and state rules vary widely.
One federal program—the Department of
Agriculture’s Child and Adult Care Food Program—provides funding for meals and snacks
for almost 3 million children in child care
each day. Providers who receive these funds
must serve meals and snacks that meet certain minimal standards but not specific nutrient-based standards. With a large share of
10
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
young children attending child care and preschool programs, policymakers should place a
high priority on understanding what policies
and practices in these settings can prevent
childhood obesity.
Changes in Parenting
Ana Lindsay, Katarina Sussner, Juhee Kim,
and Steven Gortmaker review evidence on
how parents can help their children develop
and maintain healthful eating and physical
activity habits—and thereby ultimately help
prevent childhood obesity. They show how
important it is for parents to understand how
their roles in preventing obesity change as
their children move through critical developmental periods, from before birth through
adolescence. They point out that researchers,
policymakers, and practitioners should also
make use of such information to develop
more effective interventions and educational
programs that address childhood obesity
right where it starts—at home. Although a
great deal of research has been done on how
parents shape their children’s eating and
physical activity habits, surprisingly few highquality data exist on the effectiveness of obesity-prevention programs that center on
parental involvement. The authors also review research evaluating school-based interventions that include components targeted at
parents. The authors acknowledge that
achieving the ultimate goal of preventing and
controlling the growing childhood obesity
epidemic will require programs and policies
that are multifaceted and community-wide,
but they emphasize that parents are central
to these wider efforts. Research shows that
successful intervention must involve and
work directly with parents from the very
early stages of child development and growth
to make healthful changes in the home and to
reinforce and support healthful eating and
regular physical activity.
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Targeting Interventions for Minority and
Low-Income Children
Although rates of childhood obesity among
the general population are alarmingly high,
they are higher still in ethnic minority and
low-income communities. Shiriki Kumanyika
and Sonya Grier summarize differences in
childhood obesity prevalence by race and
ethnicity and by socioeconomic status. They
then discuss how various environmental factors may have contributed to the higher obesity rates among disadvantaged and minority
children. The authors show that low-income
and minority children watch more television
than white, non-poor children and thus are
exposed to many more commercials for highfat and high-sugar foods. They note that
neighborhoods where low-income and minority children live typically have more fastfood restaurants and fewer vendors of healthful foods than do wealthier neighborhoods.
Children in these neighborhoods often face
many obstacles to physical activity, such as
unsafe streets, dilapidated parks, and a lack
of facilities. The authors see some promise in
the schools that low-income and minority
children attend. The national school lunch
and breakfast programs, for example, provide
important nutritional safety nets for many of
the nation’s poorer children. Also, state efforts to limit sales of sugar- and fat-laden
foods at school could lead the way to effective obesity prevention—although the authors caution that these policies may impose
a financial burden on poorer school districts.
When Prevention Fails: The Medical
Community’s Response
Sonia Caprio notes that although pediatricians are concerned about the problem of
obesity, most are not equipped to treat obese
children. The most effective treatment programs have been carried out in academic
centers through an approach that combines a
dietary component, behavioral modification,
physical activity, and parental involvement.
Such programs, however, have yet to be
translated to primary care settings. Successfully treating obesity will require a major shift
in pediatric care that makes use of the findings of these academic centers regarding
structured intervention programs. To ensure
that pediatricians are well trained in treating
obesity, the American Medical Association is
working with federal agencies, medical specialty societies, and public health organizations to educate physicians about how to prevent and manage obesity in both children and
adults, incorporating evidence from new research as it is developed. The goal is to include such training as part of undergraduate,
graduate, and continuing medical education
programs. Effective treatment will also require changes in how obesity treatment and
prevention services are financed. Currently,
because insurance often does not cover obesity treatment, long-term weight-management programs are beyond the reach of most
patients.
Implications
The research in this volume firmly establishes that increases in childhood overweight
and obesity pose a real health threat for the
nation’s children. As the articles demonstrate,
researchers have proposed many environmental and policy solutions—from building
more sidewalks, to limiting soda sales in
schools, to building more grocery stores in
poor neighborhoods—to fix the problem. But
evidence on the effectiveness of many of
these proposed solutions will take time to
develop. In the short run, it makes sense to
focus attention on programs and policies that
have a good chance of being effective and for
which there are policy “levers” to produce
change. A review of the evidence in this volume suggests four promising strategies. The
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first is to implement obesity-prevention initiatives that involve and benefit both children
and their parents. The second is to improve
nutrition and physical activity environments
within schools. The third is to limit children’s
exposure to advertising. And the fourth is to
improve the way pediatricians deliver preventive care and treatment for obesity and
related conditions.
Implementing obesityprevention strategies in
after-school programs
presents an attractive
option for many schools,
because it may present fewer
conflicts with the schools’
academic mandates.
Several articles in this volume discuss obesity-prevention programs that have been
shown to work. These interventions, discussed in the two articles by Mary Story,
Karen Kaphingst, and Simone French and in
the article by Ana Lindsay, Katarina Sussner,
Juhee Kim, and Stephen Gortmaker, have
been implemented with children of varying
ages, from preschoolers to adolescents. They
are typically conducted within schools and
child care centers and involve components
that teach children and their parents about
diet and television viewing and that engage
children in physical activity. In some programs, such as “Planet Health”—which Mary
Story and her colleagues discuss in their article on schools—parents and children are
asked to work collaboratively to make such
changes in the home environment as reducing TV time. Others combine in-school activ12
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
ities with informational materials sent home
to parents. Although more work is required
to tailor these interventions to children of
various ages and demographic groups, the evidence indicates that obesity-prevention interventions can be effective at changing the
behaviors of both children and their parents.
It makes sense to locate obesity-prevention
programs in schools and child care centers,
where instructors can reach both children
and their parents, but many schools and child
care centers lack the resources or skills to implement new programs. In addition, schools
are under increasing pressure to devote time
to academics rather than to health-oriented
programs. These problems can be countered
in part by providing schools and child care
centers with the funds and training required
to implement obesity-prevention programs.
Another possible venue for obesity prevention is after-school programs. These programs
serve a growing number of children, especially low-income and minority children who
are at the highest risk of becoming obese. Implementing obesity-prevention strategies in
after-school programs presents an attractive
option for many schools, because it may present fewer conflicts with the schools’ academic
mandates.
Another promising strategy is to improve the
foods that children eat at school. Because it is
easier for policymakers to regulate what is
served in the school cafeteria than to affect
what is offered on the kitchen table, schools
are a logical place to focus efforts to improve
children’s diets. Local, state, and federal policies affect what foods are now served in
schools. The Department of Agriculture
(USDA) enforces standards for the nutritional content of food sold in the national
school lunch program, and schools that participate in this program are prohibited from
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selling foods of “minimal nutritional value” in
school cafeterias during lunchtime. But, as
Mary Story and her coauthors point out, the
definition of “minimal nutritional value” includes only a small class of foods (such as
soda and chewing gum) and excludes such
foods as candy bars, cookies, and potato
chips. Barring additional state or local regulations, schools that follow the USDA’s regulations are free to sell these foods in their cafeterias and can sell food of minimal nutritional
value outside of cafeterias, often in vending
machines or student stores.
Many states and local school districts have
chosen to impose requirements that are
stronger than those the USDA enforces. By
April 2005, twenty-eight states had taken
steps to limit competitive foods sold in school
cafeterias.10 The National Conference of
State Legislatures reported in May 2005 that
a few states had enacted laws regulating
vending machine sales in schools, and others
had introduced legislation that would, if enacted, restrict vending machine sales.11 The
popularity of these initiatives is heightened
by evidence, discussed by Mary Story and her
coauthors, that schools that have shifted to
more healthful foods in cafeterias and vending machines have been able to do so without
losing revenue. An important question is
whether these state efforts are sufficient, or
whether it is time for the USDA to play a
larger role in regulating sales of competitive
foods. A strong case could be made for
changes in federal policy if the states that are
experimenting with new school nutrition
policies show success in promoting more
healthful eating and in preventing childhood
obesity. Although less is known about the relationship between the nutritional quality of
foods provided in child care centers and the
development of obesity, the Child and Adult
Care Food Program, which serves these set-
tings, provides similar opportunities for federal policy to influence children’s diets.
Schools may also take steps to increase children’s physical activity. However, the evidence on the best way to do so is mixed. A
recent study by John Cawley, Chad Meyerhoefer, and David Newhouse indicates that
states that increased the time that students
were required to spend in physical education
classes did not show reductions in the share
of children who were overweight.12 Yet some
interventions aimed at increasing physical activity in schools have been proven effective.
The key to this puzzle may be that many
physical education classes do not provide students with enough vigorous exercise to be effective. The study by Cawley, Meyerhoefer,
and Newhouse found that increases in the required hours of physical education translated
into much smaller increases in students’ reports of time spent exercising. Researchers
should place a high priority on identifying
and implementing programs that effectively
increase physical activity at school.
Another area that deserves immediate attention is commercial advertising aimed at children. Regulated at the federal level by Congress and the Federal Communications
Commission, advertising aimed at children,
particularly advertising that promotes unhealthful behavior, has traditionally been
subject to limits that courts have found constitutionally permissible.13 As John Cawley
notes in his article in this volume, children
view an average of 40,000 television ads a
year. A child watching Saturday morning television may see one food commercial every
five minutes, with most featuring such energy-dense, minimally nutritious foods as
candy, sugared cereal, and fast food.14 Although studies have not found a conclusive
link between the content of advertising and
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obesity, they have shown that children find
advertisements very persuasive and that, in
turn, children successfully influence their
parents’ food purchases.15 The evidence that
Shiriki Kumanyika and Sonya Grier present
in this volume indicates that low-income and
minority children, who have a higher chance
than other children of becoming obese, are
exposed to more advertising than other
children.
Obviously, one strategy for limiting children’s
exposure to advertising is to educate parents
about television and encourage them simply
to turn off the TV. The reality is, however,
that even with limited television viewing,
children are exposed to a great deal of advertising. Thus another strategy is to reduce advertising time for energy-dense foods aimed
at children or to mandate that ads for junk
food be balanced with advertising for healthy
foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables. The
most aggressive strategy would be to institute
an outright ban on advertising for foods that
are high in sugar, fat, and calories during children’s programming, just as Congress has
banned all tobacco advertising on television
and radio.16 Although the evidence of a link
between obesity and advertising may not yet
be strong enough to justify a ban on food advertisements geared toward children, the evidence that children are easily swayed by food
commercials suggests that some limits are
advisable.
A final area that clearly needs reform is the
way pediatric medical care is delivered to
prevent and treat childhood obesity. As Sonia
Caprio documents, pediatricians are not
being adequately trained to screen for, prevent, and treat childhood obesity. To remedy
this deficiency, medical schools and pediatric
residency programs need to train physicians
how to prevent obesity as well as how to man14
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
age its associated health problems. In addition, doctors must be compensated for delivering obesity-related care. Although federal
law does not prevent states from reimbursing
providers for obesity prevention and treatment services through Medicaid and the
State Child Health Insurance Programs
(S-CHIP), neither does it mandate that they
do so. Many states now offer little coverage
for these services.17 Moreover, some private
insurance companies do not recognize obesity as a disease or reimburse treatment at
low rates.18 Thus some providers find themselves in the position of being able to claim
reimbursement for treating specific health
problems that stem from obesity, but not
being reimbursed fully for treating obesity
itself. States could mandate that Medicaid
and private insurance cover obesity as a disease, with appropriate reimbursement for
evidence-based counseling and biomedical
interventions. Several states have already
done so; according to Sonia Caprio’s article in
this volume, of the four bills introduced in
states this year to require Medicaid treatment
options, two became law. At the federal level,
views about whether obesity is or is not a disease are also starting to shift. In July 2004,
the Department of Health and Human Services removed language from the Medicare
Coverage Issues Manual stating that obesity
was not an illness. Removing this language
paved the way for Medicare recipients—
primarily elderly Americans—to be covered
for obesity treatments that are shown to be
effective. Policymakers should take similar
steps for the public and private health insurance programs that cover children.
These policy recommendations are cautious,
based on strategies that promise to yield the
most results in the short term. But they are
simply first steps in what is likely to be a long
battle to reverse obesity trends. Numerous
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Introducing the Issue
innovative policies and programs, not now
supported by strong evidence, nevertheless
hold promise. Among them are improving access to healthful foods in low-income neighborhoods by bringing in farmers’ markets and
grocery stores; constructing sidewalks so that
children can walk or bike to school; building
or enhancing hiking trails and parks so that
children and their families can be more physically active; and requiring restaurants to provide more helpful nutrition information to
consumers.
The only way to learn whether these strategies work is to experiment with them. Many
states and communities are undertaking new
programs that incorporate a wide array of
obesity-prevention strategies. These initiatives can teach us about the most effective
ways to reduce child obesity. But to realize
their full promise, researchers must carefully
and extensively evaluate these initiatives and
then disseminate their findings widely. A prerequisite for any effective public health campaign is a solid base of knowledge about what
can be done to improve health. Building this
knowledge base will take time, attention, and
funding, but it is essential to halting the rise
in childhood obesity.
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Notes
1. Jeffrey P. Koplan, Catharyn T. Liverman, and Vivica I. Kraak, eds., Preventing Childhood Obesity: Health
in the Balance (Washington: National Academies Press, 2005).
2. S. Jay Olshansky and others, “A Potential Decline in Life Expectancy in the United States in the 21st Century,” New England Journal of Medicine 352 (2005): 1138–45. An editorial in the same volume, however,
cautioned that this claim may be overstated. See Samuel H. Preston, “Deadweight? The Influence of Obesity on Longevity,” New England Journal of Medicine 352 (2005): 1135–37.
3. Guijing Wang and William H. Dietz, “Economic Burden of Obesity in Youths Aged 7 to 17 Years:
1979–1999,” Pediatrics 109, 5 (2002): E81.
4. Roland Sturm, “The Effects of Obesity, Smoking, and Drinking on Medical Problems and Costs,” Health
Affairs 21, no. 2 (2002): 245–53.
5. Eric A. Finkelstein, Ian C. Fiebelkom, and Guijing Wang, “National Medical Spending Attributable to
Overweight and Obesity: How Much, and Who’s Paying?” Health Affairs, Supplemental Web Exclusives:
W3-219-26.
6. Darius N. Lakdawalla, Jay Bhattacharya, and Dana P. Goldman, “Are the Young Becoming More Disabled?
Rates of Disability Appear to Be on the Rise among People Ages Eighteen to Fifty-Nine, Fueled by a
Growing Obesity Epidemic,” Health Affairs 23, no. 1 (2004): 168–76; Darius Lakdawalla and others,
“Forecasting the Nursing Home Population,” Medical Care 41, no. 1 (2003) (Point/Counterpoint): 8–20.
7. Robert C. Whitaker and others, “Predicting Obesity in Young Adulthood from Childhood and Parental
Obesity,” New England Journal of Medicine 337 (1997): 869–73.
8. In imperial measurements, the calculation is (weight in pounds/height in inches [squared]) x 703.
9. Department of Health and Human Services, “2000 CDC Growth Charts for the United States: Methods
and Development,” Vital and Health Statistics, series 11, no. 246 (Hyattsville, Md.: National Center for
Health Statistics, 2002).
10. U.S. Government Accountability Office, “School Meal Programs: Competitive Foods Are Widely Available
and Generate Substantial Revenues for Schools” (Government Accountability Office, August 2005)
(www.gao.gov/new.items/d05563.pdf [accessed December 5, 2005]).
11. www.ncsl.org/programs/health/vending.htm (accessed December 6, 2005).
12. John Cawley, Chad D. Meyerhoefer, and David Newhouse, “The Impact of State Physical Education Requirements on Youth Physical Activity and Overweight,” Working Paper 11411 (Cambridge, Mass.: National Bureau of Economic Research, June 2005).
13. See Children’s Television Act of 1990, P.L. 101-437; Children’s Internet Protection Act, P.L. 106-554; Code
of Federal Regulations 47, sec. 73.670 (1991 FCC rule limiting commercials aimed at children); 15 U.S.C.
1335 (congressional prohibition of advertisements for tobacco on radio and television). See also People of
State of California v. R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. (2004), which let stand a lower court decision that sanctioned R. J. Reynolds for targeting youth with tobacco advertising in magazines with a teen audience of 15
percent or more—a violation of the tobacco litigation Master Settlement Agreement.
16
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
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14. Krista Kotz and Mary Story, “Food Advertisements during Children’s Saturday Morning Television Programming: Are They Consistent with Dietary Recommendations?” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 94, no. 11 (1994): 1296–1300.
15. J. Galst and M. White, “The Unhealthy Persuader: The Reinforcing Value of Television and Children’s Purchase Influence Attempts at the Supermarket,” Child Development 47 (1976): 1089–96; Howard L. Taras
and others, “Television’s Influence on Children’s Diet and Physical Activity,” Journal of Developmental and
Behavioral Pediatrics 10 (1989): 176–80.
16. 15 U.S.C. 1335.
17. Adam Gilden Tsai and others, “Availability of Nutrition Services for Medicaid Recipients in the Northeastern United States: Lack of Uniformity and the Positive Effect of Managed Care,” American Journal of
Managed Care 9, no. 12 (2003): 817–21.
18. Andrew M. Tershakovec and others, “Insurance Reimbursement for the Treatment of Obesity in Children,” Journal of Pediatrics 134 (1999): 573–78.
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Childhood Obesity:
Trends and Potential Causes
Patricia M. Anderson and Kristin F. Butcher
Summary
The increase in childhood obesity over the past several decades, together with the associated
health problems and costs, is raising grave concern among health care professionals, policy experts, children’s advocates, and parents. Patricia Anderson and Kristin Butcher document
trends in children’s obesity and examine the possible underlying causes of the obesity epidemic.
They begin by reviewing research on energy intake, energy expenditure, and “energy balance,”
noting that children who eat more “empty calories” and expend fewer calories through physical
activity are more likely to be obese than other children. Next they ask what has changed in children’s environment over the past three decades to upset this energy balance equation. In particular, they examine changes in the food market, in the built environment, in schools and child
care settings, and in the role of parents—paying attention to the timing of these changes.
Among the changes that affect children’s energy intake are the increasing availability of energydense, high-calorie foods and drinks through schools. Changes in the family, particularly an increase in dual-career or single-parent working families, may also have increased demand for
food away from home or pre-prepared foods. A host of factors have also contributed to reductions in energy expenditure. In particular, children today seem less likely to walk to school and
to be traveling more in cars than they were during the early 1970s, perhaps because of changes
in the built environment. Finally, children spend more time viewing television and using
computers.
Anderson and Butcher find no one factor that has led to increases in children’s obesity. Rather,
many complementary changes have simultaneously increased children’s energy intake and decreased their energy expenditure. The challenge in formulating policies to address children’s
obesity is to learn how best to change the environment that affects children’s energy balance.
www.futureofchildren.org
Patricia M. Anderson is a professor of economics at Dartmouth College. Kristin F. Butcher is a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank
of Chicago. This article reflects the views of the authors and not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago or the Federal
Reserve System. The authors thank Blair Burgeen, Kyung Park, Alex Reed, and Diana Zhang for excellent research assistance and William
Dietz, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, participants at the Future of Children conference, Christina Paxson, Elisabeth Donahue, Tracy Orleans, and J. A. Grisso for helpful comments.
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T
he increase in childhood obesity has gained the full attention of health care professionals, health policy experts,
children’s advocates, and parents. All are concerned that today’s overweight and obese children will turn into tomorrow’s overweight and obese adults,
destined to suffer from all the health problems and health care costs associated with
obesity. In this essay, we document trends in
children’s obesity and examine the underlying causes of the obesity epidemic.
We begin by discussing definitions of overweight and obesity, noting some potential
problems. We document trends in adult
and childhood obesity, both worldwide and
in the United States, over the past three
decades, paying particular attention to the
timing of the increase in obesity. We preface our analysis of obesity’s causes with a
brief review of research on children’s energy intake and energy expenditure and on
what affects children’s “energy balance.”
Research findings support the idea that
children who eat more “empty calories”
and expend fewer calories through physical activity are more likely to be obese
than other children. Finally we examine
how the environment in which children are
raised might have changed over the past
three decades and how these changes
might have upset the energy balance equation. Have changes in the food market, in
the built environment, in schools and child
care settings, and in the role of parents
contributed to increased obesity? In particular, we examine whether the timing of
the changes in children’s environments
coincides with the timing of the increase in
obesity, making it likely that those changes
are driving the increase in children’s obesity rates.
20
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
Defining Obesity
Typically, obesity and overweight in adults
are defined in terms of body mass index
(BMI), which in turn is defined as weight in
kilograms divided by height in meters
squared (kg/m2).1 Guidelines issued by the
National Institutes of Health consider an
adult underweight if his or her BMI is less
than 18.5, overweight if BMI is 25 or more,
and obese if BMI is 30 or more.2
Use of BMI to assess overweight and obesity
in children is more controversial. Because
children are growing, the link between adiposity, or “true fatness,” and the ratio of their
weight to their height may be looser than that
of adults. However, William Dietz and Mary
Bellizzi, reporting on a conference convened
by the International Obesity Task Force, note
that BMI offers “a reasonable measure with
which to assess fatness in children and adolescents.”3 They also conclude that a BMI above
the 85th percentile for a child’s age and sex
group is likely to accord with the adult definition of overweight, and a BMI above the 95th
percentile is consistent with the adult definition of obese.4 Children are thus defined as
being overweight or obese if they have a BMI
above given age- and sex-specific percentile
cutoffs. These cutoffs, which were set for a
base population surveyed in the early 1970s
before obesity began to increase, yield a specific, fixed BMI cutoff used to define overweight and obesity for boys and girls of each
age.5 Later in the article we will use these cutoffs to define obesity using the National
Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys
(NHANES), a nationally representative sample of U.S. children who were consistently
weighed and measured between 1971 and
2002.6 The data will show an increase in
measured obesity over time if more children
in each of the NHANES surveys have a BMI
above this fixed cutoff number.
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C h i l d h o o d O b e s i t y : Tr e n d s a n d P o t e n t i a l C a u s e s
International Trends in Obesity
Obesity is a problem not just in the United States but worldwide. Comparing international obesity
rates and trends using BMI, however, is complicated, as the relationship between “true fatness”
and height and weight may differ for people in different environments. Some groups, for example,
may simply have denser body composition than others. Definitions are particularly complicated in
international comparisons of obesity in children. If age- and sex-specific growth patterns in
Botswana differ from those in the United States, then obesity definitions based on the same BMI
cutoffs are unlikely to yield useful comparisons. Nonetheless, a growing body of literature examining specific populations has concluded that obesity is increasing worldwide.
Table 1 lists adult obesity rates collected by the World Health Organization for selected countries
and time periods.1 Although different countries have different obesity rates, a common pattern
across all countries listed, with the exception of Japan, is that adult obesity rates are rising. U.S.
adult obesity rates are among the world’s highest (compare the rates in table 1 with those in figure 1 on page 23). In 1995, for example, 15 percent of men and 16.5 percent of women in England were obese. In the United States (in the nearest time period for which data are available),
the share was more than 20 percent for men and women combined. Only the former German Democratic Republic has obesity rates that are similar to those in the United States for similar years.
The rates are still quite low in Japan, Finland, Sweden, and the Netherlands.
Many studies of individual countries have also noted increases in childhood obesity in recent
years. Helen Kalies and two colleagues found that obesity rates rose from 1.8 to 2.8 percent
among preschool children in Germany between 1982 and 1997.2 Among children aged seven to
eleven in England, the prevalence of overweight and obesity increased from less than 10 percent
for both boys and girls in the mid-1970s to more than 20 percent for girls and more than 15 percent for boys by 1998.3 In urban areas in China, the prevalence of obesity increased among children aged two to six from 1.5 percent in 1989 to 12.6 percent in 1997. In rural China over the
same period, obesity rates fell.4 Though childhood obesity is on the rise worldwide, the patterns
differ, in expected ways, between developing and developed countries. In the former, obesity may
coexist with undernutrition, with children in the relatively affluent urban areas more likely to be
obese than their rural counterparts.
1. World Health Organization, “Obesity: Preventing and Managing the Global Epidemic” (Geneva: WHO, 1998).
2. Helen Kalies, J. Lenz, and Rüdiger von Kries, “Prevalence of Overweight and Obesity and Trends in Body Mass Index in German PreSchool Children, 1982–1997,” International Journal of Obesity 26 (2002): 1211–17.
3. Tim J. Lobstein and others, “Increasing Levels of Excess Weight among Children in England,” International Journal of Obesity 27 (2003):
1136–38.
4. Juhua Luo and Frank B. Hu, “Time Trends of Obesity in Pre-School Children in China from 1989 to 1997,” International Journal of Obesity 26 (2002): 553–58.
Obesity in the United States
In the United States obesity rates have increased for all age groups over the past thirty
years. Figure 1 shows the share of the U.S.
population, by age group, that is obese based
on the BMI cutoffs described above.7 During
1971–74 about 5 percent of children aged two
to nineteen years were obese. By 1976–80 the
share obese was slightly higher, but between
1980 and 1988–94 the share obese nearly
doubled. By 1999–2002 nearly 15 percent of
U.S. children were considered obese. AlV O L . 1 6 / N O. 1 / S P R I N G 2 0 0 6
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Table 1. Obesity Rates, by Country and Year
Prevalence of obesity (percent)
Country
Year
Men
Women
Australia (aged 25–64)
1980
1989
9.3
11.5
8.0
13.2
Brazil (aged 25—64)
1975
1989
3.1
5.9
8.2
13.3
Canada (aged 20–70 in 1978 and 18–74 in 1986–90)
1978
1986–90
6.8
15
9.6
15
England (aged 16–64)
1980
1995
6.0
15.0
8.0
16.5
Finland (aged 20–75)
1978–79
1991–93
10
14
10
11
Former German Democratic Republic (aged 25–65)
1985
1992
13.7
20.5
22.2
26.8
Japan (aged 20 and older)
1976
1993
0.7
1.8
2.8
2.6
Netherlands (aged 20–29)
1987
1995
6.0
8.4
8.5
8.3
Sweden (aged 16–64)
1980–81
1988–89
4.9
5.3
8.7
9.1
Source: World Health Organization, “Obesity: Preventing and Managing the Global Epidemic” (Geneva: WHO, 1998). European countries:
table 3.4, page 25; Western Pacific countries: table 3.7, page 28; the Americas: table 3.2, page 22. An individual is categorized as obese
if he or she has a body mass index of 30 or above.
though the rates of obesity were higher for
older children in every survey, all age groups
showed an increase in obesity. Rates for boys
and girls were nearly identical. Adult obesity
also steadily increased, with the share of
adults defined as obese larger than that of
children in any given time period. Obesity
rates increased for both men and women,
though women had higher rates than men.8
Logically enough, increasing childhood obesity is related to increasing adult obesity.
Obese children are much more likely than
normal weight children to become obese
adults. Obesity even in very young children is
correlated with higher rates of obesity in
adulthood. A study from the late 1990s shows
that 52 percent of children who are obese between the ages of three and six are obese at
age twenty-five as against only 12 percent of
normal and underweight three- to six-yearold children.9
22
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
Although the obese share of the population is
expected to increase with age, obesity today
is increasing with age more quickly than it
did thirty years ago. Researchers in 1971 trying to project what share of ten-year-olds that
year would be obese by the time they turned
forty in 2001 would have predicted the share
to be between 10 and 15 percent. But in
1999–2002 the share was close to 30 percent.
This change in the relationship between age
and obesity has important implications for
predicting what share of the population will
have obesity-related health problems as the
population ages.
The precise timing of the increase in obesity
in the United States is also important for researchers attempting to identify its causes. As
shown in figure 1, the obese share of the U.S.
population for both children and adults was
fairly stable between 1971–74 and 1976–80
and only began to increase thereafter. Thus, in
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Figure 1. Percentage of U.S. Population That Is Obese
Percent
35
30
All Children
25
2–5-Year-Olds
20
6–11-Year-Olds
15
12–19-Year-Olds
10
All Adults
5
0
1971–74
1976–90
1988–94
1999–2002
Years
Source: Authors’ calculations from National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES).
the search for causes of the obesity epidemic,
researchers focus particularly on any environmental changes that began between 1980 and
1988 and continued during the 1990s.
Before beginning our analysis of these causes,
we want to document a few more important
features of the trend in obesity. As figure 2
shows, obesity rates are higher among minority and low-income children than among children as a whole.10 Although obesity increased
for all children, it increased more for children
in low-income families and increased the
most for African American children.
In addition to examining changes in obesity
rates it is important to examine how the distribution of BMI has also changed. Obesity rates
alone may be misleading because small
changes in BMI may result in large changes in
obesity rates. Suppose, for example, that in one
year a large group of children with BMIs just
below the obesity cutoff gained a few pounds,
thus tipping over into the obese category. Obesity rates would increase, even though the underlying health of the population did not
change much. Distribution of BMI is also important in comparing obesity rates between
groups. For example, if obesity rates were
higher among low-income children simply because a slightly higher fraction of children had
BMIs above the obesity cutoff, differences in
obesity rates would not be expected to translate into differences in health outcomes.
An examination of the data indicates that
movements of people from just below to just
above the BMI cutoffs cannot explain changes
in obesity in the 1990s. By 1999–2002 not only
was a larger share of children obese, those
who were obese were also heavier than in the
past. Figure 2 charts changes in the percentage of children who are obese for all children,
for low-income children, and for African
American children; it also reports average
BMI among the obese for these groups. Average BMI among all obese children increased
little between 1971–74 and 1988–94, implying
that the increase in obesity rates was mostly
due to a higher fraction of children “tipping”
over the obesity cutoff. But by 1999–2002 average BMI had increased among obese children. The increase in average BMI among
obese children between 1971–74 and
1999–2002 corresponds to an increase in body
weight for a 4'6" tall child from about 113.6
pounds to 116.1 pounds.
Figures 3 and 4 cast more light on the changing BMI distribution. They show the share of
adults and children, respectively, that is overweight (but not obese) and the share obese.
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Figure 2. Percentage of Children Who Are Obese and Average BMI among
Obese Children, by Group
Percent
25
20
Average BMI for:
All obese: 27.4
Low-income obese: 27.1
African Amer. obese: 28.7
Average BMI for:
All obese: 27.0
Low-income obese: 27.1
African Amer. obese: 28.3
Average BMI for:
All obese: 27.4
Low-income obese: 27.6
African Amer. obese: 27.8
Average BMI for:
All obese: 28.0
Low-income obese: 28.1
African Amer. obese: 29.1
15
All Children
10
Low-Income
Children
5
African American
Children
0
1971–74
1976–80
1988–94
1999–2000
Years
Source: Authors’ calculations from National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES).
They also show BMI at the median of the distribution (half of the people are heavier) and
at the 95th percentile of the distribution (5
percent of the people are heavier). After
1976–80 the share overweight and the share
obese increase for both adults and children,
but the share obese increases more rapidly.
Similarly, although the median BMI increases after 1980, BMI at the 95th percentile increases more quickly.
Two examples illustrate the consequences of
these changes in the distribution of BMI. An
adult woman who is 5'4" tall, with a BMI at
the median, would weigh 143.3 pounds in
1971–74. By 1999–2002 she would weigh
157.3 pounds, a gain of 14 pounds, or 9.8 percent. But a 5'4" tall woman with a BMI at the
95th percentile would go from 197.5 to 231.9
pounds over the same period—a gain of 34.4
pounds, or 17.4 percent. For children, the difference in the median and upper-tail weight
gain is even more striking. A 4'6" child with
the median BMI would gain 4.6 pounds over
this period for a 6.3 percent increase (73.4 to
78.0 pounds). But a child at the 95th percentile would gain about 19 pounds for a 17.5
percent weight gain (108.3 to 127.3 pounds).
In short, BMI is becoming more unequally
distributed: the heavy have gotten much
24
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
heavier. Furthermore, obesity is not evenly
distributed across socio-demographic groups.
Indeed, given the pattern of changes in the
BMI distribution, obesity appears to have
much in common with other diseases: everyone may be exposed to a given change in the
environment, but only those with a susceptibility to the given disease will come down
with it. For those with a susceptibility to obesity, the conditions appear to be right for
their disease to flourish.
A Question of Energy Balance
Clearly, overweight and obesity are increasing
in children and adults. Less clear are the
causes of this increase, although the basic
physiology of weight change is well understood: weight is gained when energy intake exceeds energy expenditure. Although certain
endocrinological or neurological syndromes,
including Praeder Willi, Klinefelter’s, Frohlich’s, Lawrence Mood Biedl, Klein-Levin, and
Mauriac syndromes, can lead to overweight—
and although these syndromes are often tested
for, especially in cases of childhood obesity—
less than 5 percent of obesity cases result from
these “endogenous” factors.11
Genetics also plays a big role in obesity. Recent studies have concluded that about 25 to
40 percent of BMI is heritable.12 Identical
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Figure 3. Percentage of Adults Who Are Overweight or Obese
Percent
40
35
Median BMI: 24.6
Median BMI: 24.5
Median BMI: 25.5
Median BMI: 27.0
95th Percentile: 33.9
95th Percentile: 34.4
95th Percentile: 37.0
95th Percentile: 39.8
30
25
20
15
Overweight Adults
10
Obese Adults
5
0
1971–74
1976–80
1988–94
1999–2000
Years
Source: Authors’ calculations from National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES).
Figure 4. Percentage of Children Who Are Overweight or Obese
Percent
25
Median BMI: 17.7
Median BMI: 18.0
Median BMI: 18.2
Median BMI: 18.8
20
95th Percentile: 26.1
95th Percentile: 26.1
95th Percentile: 28.3
95th Percentile: 30.7
15
Overweight
Children
10
5
Obese Children
0
1971–74
1976–80
1988–94
1999–2000
Years
Source: Authors’ calculations from National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES).
twins raised apart, for example, have been
found to have a correlation in BMI of about
0.7 (a correlation of 1 is perfect), only slightly
lower than that of twins raised together.13 Of
course, the gene pool does not change nearly
rapidly enough for a change in genes to explain the recent increase in childhood overweight and obesity. But it does appear that
certain people may have a higher genetic susceptibility to weight gain. Thus, when identical twins are subjected to an overfeeding regimen, the correlation of the weight gain
within twin pairs is significantly higher than
that between twin pairs.14 But as important as
genes are, the primary focus in the search for
the causes of rising obesity must be on
changes in energy balance.
Maintaining a stable weight requires a delicate balance between energy intake and energy expenditures. Very young children seem
capable of adjusting their intake to match
their outflow, but as children grow up, they
seem to lose this apparently innate ability.15
Their food intake, rather than being based on
energy needs, is influenced by external cues,
such as the amount of food presented.16
Much research on childhood obesity focuses
on the role of energy intake, with most studies analyzing a particular source.
Studies of Energy Intake
Fast food is a common subject of such studies. Cross-sectional studies have established
that individuals consuming fast-food meals
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have higher energy intake with lower nutritional values than those not consuming fast
food.17 Such a finding, however, does not
guarantee that children consuming more fast
food will be more likely to be overweight. In
fact, Cara Ebbeling and several colleagues
find that although both overweight and lean
adolescents consume more calories when eating fast food, the lean compensate for that energy intake, while the overweight do not.18 A
recent long-term study of eight- to twelveyear-old girls did find that those eating fast
food two or more times a week at baseline,
when 96 percent of study subjects were lean,
had larger weight gains at a three-year followup.19 But the study covers only middle-class,
white females. And although its long-term design makes it more reliable than a crosssectional study, it still does not conclusively
prove a causal effect of fast food. Unobserved
characteristics of the girls that may be correlated with both fast-food consumption and
weight gain may be the true causal culprit.
Another frequently studied source of energy
is sweet beverages, mainly soft drinks but also
juice. As with fast food, studies generally establish that drinking these beverages results in
higher overall energy intake. Several studies
have also found a positive link between overweight and soft drink consumption.20 Findings on juice consumption have been more
mixed; cross-sectional studies find a link, but
some long-term studies do not.21 More recently, however, a long-term study of
preschoolers has found a positive link between all sweet beverages (including soda,
juice, and other fruit drinks) and overweight.22 Another recent study looks at repeated cross-sections of fifth graders in one
school and finds a positive, but not significant,
relationship between sweetened beverage
consumption and BMI.23 Finally, another
study uses a long-term design similar to that of
26
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
the fast-food study just noted. Children aged
nine to fourteen in 1996 were followed annually through 1998. For both boys and girls,
consumption of sugar-added beverages implied small increases in BMI over the years.24
Another much-studied source of energy intake is snacks. Although snack foods tend to
be energy dense, implying that snacking may
increase overall energy intake, snacking does
not appear to contribute to childhood overweight. In a simple cross-sectional study comparing obese and non-obese adolescents,
Linda Bandini and several colleagues find
that energy intake from snacks is similar for
both groups.25 They conclude that obese adolescents eat no more “junk” food than nonobese adolescents, and thus the former’s
source of energy imbalance must lie elsewhere. A recent long-term study by Sarah
Phillips and colleagues comes to a similar
conclusion after collecting information from
eight- to twelve-year-old girls annually for ten
years.26 The study finds no relationship between consuming snack foods (such as chips,
baked goods, and candy) and BMI, although
as in the beverage-specific studies just noted,
it does find a relationship between BMI and
soda.
Studies of Energy Expenditure
The other, equally important side of the energy balance equation is energy expenditures, both through physical activity and
through dietary thermogenesis and the basal
metabolic rate (BMR). Dietary thermogenesis refers to the energy required to digest
meals, and the basal metabolic rate refers to
the energy required to maintain the resting
body’s functions. For sedentary adults, physical activity is responsible for 30 percent of
total energy expenditure, dietary thermogenesis for 10 percent, and BMR for the remaining 60 percent.27 Several studies examine
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whether a low BMR is responsible for overweight in children. For example, in a study of
both obese and non-obese adolescents, Bandini, Dale Schoeller, and William Dietz find
that obese teens do not have lower-thanaverage BMR, and thus lowered energy expenditure through BMR is not the cause of
maintained obesity in adolescents.28
The lack of evidence that BMR affects childhood overweight and obesity argues for a research focus on physical activity—or the lack
thereof. So far, though, studies of the link between physical activity and BMI have had
mixed results.29 One reason why researchers
have difficulty proving that physical activity
affects BMI may be that BMI is a potentially
poor measure of adiposity in the presence of
significant lean muscle mass. A study of
twelve-year-old French children bears out
this hypothesis. Looking at both BMI and
waist circumference, researchers find that
physical activity is linked with smaller waist
circumference for both boys and girls but
with lower BMI only for girls.30 Although
findings from cross-sectional studies have
been somewhat mixed, long-term studies
have associated increases in activity and decreases in BMI.31
Researchers have found much stronger links
between sedentary activities, especially television viewing, and overweight and obesity.
That said, at least one study that investigated
the effect of television watching on physical
activity found none.32 Interestingly, it found
computer use, reading, and homework time
associated with higher levels of physical activity. The relationship, however, is just a crosssectional correlation among these activities.
It may be that the parents who encourage
reading and homework and buy their children computers also encourage more physical activity.
William Dietz and Steven Gortmaker produced the canonical study on television’s role
in childhood obesity, finding that each additional hour of television per day increased the
prevalence of obesity by 2 percent.33 They
note that television viewing may affect weight
in several ways. First, it may squeeze out
physical activity. Second, television advertising may increase children’s desire for, and ultimately their consumption of, energy-dense
snack foods. Third, watching television may
The lack of evidence that
BMR affects childhood
overweight and obesity
argues for a research focus
on physical activity—or the
lack thereof.
go hand in hand with snacking, leading to
higher energy intake among children watching television. Robert Klesges, Mary Shelton,
and Lisa Klesges even concluded that children’s metabolic rate was lower while watching television than while at rest.34 That finding, however, has not been replicated, and
later studies find no effect.35
Research on the relationship among television
viewing and physical activity and overweight
has mixed findings. Although many studies
observe a positive relationship between television viewing and childhood obesity, Thomas
Robinson and several colleagues find only a
weak relationship (but William Dietz points
out several potential methodological problems with this study), and Elizabeth Vandewater and colleagues find none at all.36 These
mixed findings, though, tend to come from
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observational or prospective studies. More
rigorous experimental studies consistently
find that reducing children’s television watching lowers their BMI.37 Because these experimental studies can establish causality while
the others do not, it seems reasonable to conclude that watching television does contribute
to childhood obesity, despite the overall
mixed findings of past studies.
Studies of Other Correlates of Obesity
Overall, then, much research on childhood
obesity’s possible causes focuses on factors
that are expected to affect either the child’s
energy intake or energy expenditure. Another
line of research, however, simply documents
childhood characteristics that are correlated
with overweight, but it either does not or cannot determine their effects on the energy balance equation. Many studies, for example,
document that children from certain demographic groups are more likely than other
children to be overweight. As noted, data
from the NHANES show that African American and lower-income children have a higher
incidence of obesity than children overall.
Using data from the National Longitudinal
Survey of Youth, Richard Strauss and Harold
Pollack demonstrate that both African American and Hispanic children are more likely to
be overweight than white non-Hispanic children.38 They also find a negative relationship
between income and rates of overweight
among whites only; the relationship for Hispanics is insignificant; and for African Americans, slightly positive. The study also documents regional differences, with children in
the South and the West most likely to be overweight. It finds no significant difference between rural and urban children, although a
recent study in Pennsylvania found nearly 20
percent of seventh graders from rural districts
to be overweight compared to just 16 percent
from urban districts.39
28
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
One other repeatedly analyzed characteristic—having been breast-fed as an infant—
does not clearly line up with the energy balance equation. Beginning with Michael S.
Kramer’s work, many cross-sectional studies
have found that older children are more
likely to be lean if they were breast-fed.40 But
other studies have had somewhat more
mixed findings.41 More recently, though,
Stephan Arenz and colleagues, in a comprehensive review of past studies, conclude that
breast-feeding does seem to have a consistent
negative effect on obesity, albeit a small
one.42 As William Dietz makes clear, the
mechanism by which infant breast-feeding
may affect weight at later ages is not certain.43 One possibility is an endocrine response to breast milk. Another is that mothers have greater discretion over how much
they feed their infants when they bottle-feed.
Breast-feeding may even affect future food
preferences. It is also possible that the relationship is purely an artifact of the crosssectional study design. That is, the types of
mothers who do and do not breast-feed may
put into practice different nutritional and activity standards for their children as they
grow up. Some evidence for this possibility
can be found in a study by Melissa Nelson,
Penny Gordon-Larsen, and Linda Adair,
which confirms the cross-sectional finding of
a link between breast-fed infants and normalweight older children using long-term data
from the National Longitudinal Study of
Adolescent Health.44 When using sibling
pairs to control for unobserved maternal factors, however, they find no effect of breastfeeding on weight. In other words, a breastfed child is no more likely to be thin than his
or her sibling who was not breast-fed. Although this finding provides compelling evidence that breast-feeding does not affect
children’s weights, two considerations temper
this conclusion. First, the sample of families
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in which one sibling is breast-fed and another
is not is small, perhaps making it difficult to
identify statistically significant effects of
breast-feeding on weight. Second, with sibling pairs where only one is breast-fed, the
issue is why the mother made different decisions. It may be that the decisions were related to factors that ultimately affected the
children’s weight.
Taken together, what do these studies on the
energy balance have to say about the causes of
increasing childhood overweight and obesity?
Most studies do not determine clear causality,
but rather they reveal only cross-sectional
correlations. In the stronger long-term studies, many of the samples are relatively unrepresentative (for example, middle-class girls
from a specific region), making it unclear
whether the findings are broadly applicable.
Even for studies replete with representative,
long-term evidence (for example, the role of
television), the question is whether the timing
of the exposure matches the timing of childhood obesity trends.
Changes in the Determinants of
Energy Balance
A range of environmental changes may have
affected children’s energy balance over the
past several decades. Combined with a potential genetic susceptibility, these changes
may have contributed to the increase in
childhood overweight and obesity. In this
section we consider four possible changes in
the environment: the food market, the built
environment, schools and day care, and parents. Subsequent articles in this volume discuss each in more detail.
Changes in the Food Market
Despite a lack of abundant, clearly causal evidence, researchers find many correlations
between some types of energy intake and
childhood obesity and overweight. As noted,
probably the strongest evidence is for the
role of soft drinks, followed by slightly mixed
findings on the role of fast food. Very little
evidence exists that snack foods have a specific effect. But even without a “smoking
gun” in terms of energy intake, it is clear that
more food, without a concomitant increase in
energy expenditure, will result in weight
gain. Could changes in the food market in the
One other repeatedly
analyzed characteristic—
having been breast-fed as an
infant—does not clearly line
up with the energy balance
equation.
past several decades have caused the increase
in childhood overweight and obesity? Judy
Putnam and Shirley Gerrior analyze changes
in the U.S. food supply and find a marked increase in overall consumption of carbonated
soft drinks in the past several decades.45 The
consumption of regular (non-diet) sodas
trended slightly upward in the 1970s, remained fairly stable in the early 1980s, and
then exploded starting in 1987, continuing to
rise steadily through the 1990s. Figure 5 illustrates this trend, superimposing children’s
obesity rates over the four periods for which
NHANES data are available.
On first glance, the timing of the increase in
soda consumption, which tracks closely the
trends in increasing childhood obesity, suggests that soda consumption may well be a
contributor. But the trend is for overall consumption and includes that of adults as well as
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Figure 5. Annual Regular (Non-Diet) Soft Drink Consumption
Gallons per person
45
5.3%
40
5.5%
15.4%
10.4%
35
30
25
20
1970
1974
1978
1982
1986
1990
1994
1998
Year
Sources: NHANES data; regular soft drink consumption data for the United States overall are from Judy Putnam and Shirley Gerrior, “Trends
in the U.S. Food Supply, 1970–97,” in America’s Eating Habits: Changes and Consequences, edited by Elizabeth Frazao, USDA Agriculture
Information Bulletin no. 750 (Washington: USDA, 1999), pp. 133–59 (www.ers.usda.gov/publications/aib750/ [September 26, 2005]).
Notes: Shaded areas represent years over which BMI measures are available. The percentage of children overweight in those data is shown.
children. Simone French, Bing-Hwan Lin,
and Joanne Guthrie, however, document that
children’s consumption has risen, with the average intake more than doubling from five to
twelve ounces a day.46 Among those children
who drink sodas (a share that increased from
37 to 56 percent), average consumption rose
50 percent, from 14 to 21 ounces. The two
data points of this study, one from 1977–78
and one from 1994–98, make it impossible to
pinpoint whether the increase occurred
mainly in the late 1980s, as it did for overall
soft drink consumption. But to the extent that
children’s consumption mirrored the overall
trends, and given the significant effect on
obesity that researchers have found for soft
drinks, increased consumption may have contributed to the recent trends in obesity. The
question then becomes, What led to an increase in soft drink consumption? Certainly,
spending for advertising soft drinks has been
on the rise—from $541 million in 1995 to
$799 million in 1999, an almost 50 percent increase.47 By contrast, overall food-related advertising over the period increased less than
20 percent, from $9.8 billion to $11.6 billion.
Although beverage advertising appears to have
been growing disproportionately, the evidence
on whether advertising increases overall con30
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
sumption of a product—or merely affects relative brand consumption—is somewhat mixed.
Some evidence shows that advertising affects
food preferences, even of children as young as
two.48 But Todd Zywicki, Debra Holt, and
Maureen Ohlhausen argue that food advertising is not a cause of increasing childhood obesity and point out that children’s exposure to
advertising has increased little over time.49
Howard Taras and Miriam Gage, however,
note that commercials have grown shorter
over time, thus exposing children to more advertisements. And children’s programming
had 11 percent more commercials per hour in
1993 than in 1987.50 Throughout that period,
about half of the ads were for foods and beverages, though only about 6 percent of the beverage advertising was for soft drinks. This
study, however, like most studies on children
and advertising, focuses only on children’s programming. Many children are watching adult
programming on television and are thus being
exposed to the same advertisements as the
general population.
Another possible source of the increase in
soft drink consumption is the increase in food
consumed away from home. French, Lin, and
Guthrie note that the share of soft drinks
consumed in restaurants (including fast-food
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restaurants) rose more than 50 percent while
at the same time the share consumed at
home fell almost 25 percent.51 Consumption
of soft drinks from every source has increased over this period, but there has been a
shift away from consumption at home. This
trend in soft drinks mirrors the overall trend
in food consumed away from home. Lin and
several colleagues document a jump in the
share of calories from food consumed away
from home from just 18 percent during
1977–78, to 27 percent by 1987–88, and to 34
percent by 1995.52 The increase in food away
from home is a major change in the food
market. In fact, Shin-Yi Chou and colleagues
claim that for adults, up to two-thirds of the
increase in obesity since 1980 can be explained by the per capita increase in fast-food
restaurants over the period.53 Their methodology, however, does not rule out the possibility that the growth trends in both series are
just coincidentally correlated.
Also looking at adults, David Cutler and colleagues argue that the mushrooming of fastfood restaurants is just part and parcel of an
overall change in technology, with tastier
treats becoming available at lower cost and
greater convenience.54 They point to snacking as the key source of increased energy intake for adults. As noted, though, there is little evidence for a direct effect of snacking on
children’s obesity. The change in the food
market that remains in play, however, is portion size. As noted, all but the youngest children will eat more when offered larger portions.55 Looking at convenience foods (both
fast foods and other foods packaged for single-serving consumption), Lisa Young and
Marion Nestle document increases in portion
sizes.56 For 181 products they can identify
the date when portion sizes were increased.
Throughout the 1970s portion sizes of those
products increased rarely—fewer than ten
times every five years. That number doubled
during the first half of the 1980s to about
twenty and doubled again by the first half of
the 1990s to more than forty. During the last
half of the 1990s portion sizes increased
more than sixty times. This timing too fits relatively closely with the timing of increases in
childhood obesity. Thus the increase in childhood overweight may be driven not just by
Consumption of soft drinks
from every source has
increased over this period, but
there has been a shift away
from consumption at home.
This trend in soft drinks
mirrors the overall trend in
food consumed away from
home.
increased consumption of particular foods,
such as sodas, but also by the change in the
food market toward larger portion sizes.
No discussion of the food market would be
complete without considering prices. Darius
Lakdawalla and Tomas Philipson, for example, argue that declines in the relative price of
food have led people to eat more—and hence
to increased obesity.57 They calculate that up
to 40 percent of the adult increase in BMI
since 1980 can be attributed to growing demand for calories resulting from lower prices.
Within food groups, the consumer price index
for food away from home rose only slightly
more slowly than the index for food at
home.58 Starting with an index of 100 for
1982–84, the food-at-home index rose to
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158.1 in 1997, while the food-away-fromhome index rose to 157, making it unlikely
that price was a primary cause of this shift in
eating patterns. In general, it has been argued
that energy-dense foods tend to be less costly
than such foods as whole grains, fruits, and
vegetables.59 But based on scanner data, Jane
Reed, Elizabeth Frazao, and Rachel Itskowitz
conclude that it is possible to meet the daily
Thus the increase in
childhood overweight may
be driven not just by
increased consumption of
particular foods, such as
sodas, but also by the change
in the food market toward
larger portion sizes.
recommendations of three servings of fruits
and vegetables for just 64 cents.60 They also
note that although consumers may perceive
fresh produce as more expensive than
processed versions (such as canned, frozen,
dried, or juiced), converted from a per-pound
price to a per-serving price, 63 percent of
fruits and 57 percent of vegetables were
cheapest when purchased fresh. These prices,
however, do not take into account the implicit
time costs associated with preparing fresh
foods. We will consider this idea below when
we discuss the changing role of parents.
Changes in the Built Environment
We noted earlier the strong theoretical relationship between physical activity and overweight. Although the empirical studies establishing this link are comparatively weak,
32
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
changes in children’s physical activity should
nevertheless be investigated. Historically,
physical activity was not something one set
out to do; it was simply part of life. In fact,
Tomas Philipson and Richard Posner argue
that the long-run rise in adult obesity can be
traced to technological changes that have
made work much more sedentary.61 Rather
than being paid to undertake physical activity, modern Americans must pay, either explicitly in gym fees and equipment costs or
implicitly in forgone leisure, to be physically
active. Although attractive as a theory of historical trends and of differences between developing and developed countries, the argument provides little insight into the increase
in childhood overweight and obesity over the
past thirty years. Nonetheless, the basic insight that technological changes have made
daily living less physically active can be applied to children. To do that, it is necessary to
examine changes in the neighborhoods in
which children are growing up.
Urban sprawl increases automobile travel.62
Thus as sprawl has expanded, vehicle miles
per person have increased. Daily vehicle
miles traveled per household were fairly constant between 1977 and 1983, at about 33
and 32, respectively, and then jumped up to
41 in 1990.63 Changes in methodology make
it impossible to compare the data for these
two periods with data for years after 1990,
but the 1990 data can be adjusted to allow
such comparisons. The adjusted data show
about 50 vehicle miles traveled per household for 1990. The increase continued during
the early 1990s, before slowing in the latter
half of the decade. The 1995 measure is 57
miles; that for 2001, just 58. An increase in
household vehicle miles traveled does not
necessarily mean that children are spending
more time in the car. But total miles traveled
by those under age sixteen follows a pattern
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fairly similar to that of people of all ages, with
the main difference being that the mileage is
fairly steady between 1983 and 1990, climbing slowly for all ages. Both groups then show
large increases between 1990 and 1995 and
are fairly stable in 2001.
Vehicle miles have risen in part because children are no longer able to walk or bike to
school or other activities. In 1977, 15.8 percent of trips by children aged five to fifteen
were by foot or bicycle. By 1990 the share
had fallen to 14.1 percent; by 1995, to 9.9
percent.64 A nationally representative survey
in 2002 found that 53 percent of parents
drove their children to school, with another
38 percent putting their children on a school
bus. Just 17 percent of parents said their children walked to school, while 5 percent said
their children rode their bikes.65 Of parents
with children who did not walk or bike to
school, the overwhelming majority, 66 percent, said the reason was that school is too far
away. Almost equally common responses, at
17, 16, and 15 percent, respectively, were,
“too much traffic and no safe walking route,”
“fear of child being abducted,” and “not convenient for child to walk.” “Crime in the
neighborhood” and “your children do not
want to walk” both tallied a 6 percent response. Interestingly, 1 percent said that
there was a “school policy against children
walking to school.”
The 22 percent of children walking or riding
bikes to school in 2002 represents a major decline from the share walking or biking when
their parents were children, presumably about
twenty to thirty years earlier. Just a little more
than 70 percent of the parents reported walking or biking to school as children. Again, the
increasing trend toward urban sprawl is presumably at least part of the explanation, with
school being too far away. In fact, a study of
South Carolina schools found that children
today were much less likely to walk to a school
that had been built more recently. More than
20 percent of students in schools built during
the 1960s walked to school. For schools built
in the 1970s the share dropped below 15 percent, while for those built in the 1980s and
1990s it fell below 5 percent.66 Distance is not
the only obstacle, however. In the South Carolina study, children living within 1.5 miles of
the school were eligible for bus transportation
if the walking route was deemed hazardous.
For schools built in the 1990s, more than 25
percent of students received such transportation while just a little more than 5 percent did
for schools built in the 1960s. The share increased consistently by the decade the school
was built.
Overall, then, trends in the built environment
have resulted in more car trips and in fewer
trips by foot or by bicycle. Most notably, less
than a quarter of children walk or bike to
school today compared to more than twothirds a generation ago. Today’s lower-density
development results in schools being further
away from children’s homes, and recent
growth patterns do not provide safe walking
routes. In addition to depriving children of an
opportunity for physical activity, the change
may have other effects on overall physical activity. Ashley Cooper and her colleagues find
that at least for British boys, walking to school
was correlated with higher levels of activity in
other parts of the day.67 Of course, this relationship may not be causal; it may simply reflect that boys who are naturally more active
prefer to walk to school or that walking to
school indicates that other opportunities for
physical activity are also close by.
Changes in School and Child Care
Not only have children’s methods of getting to
school changed, but the environment once
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they get there has evolved as well. In particular, the types of foods and beverages available
at school have changed, as have physical education requirements. As noted, soft drink consumption has risen markedly over the past
several decades, with some of the increase
due to increased availability at school. Between 1977–78 and 1994–98, the share of
overall soft drink consumption that took place
in school cafeterias increased 3 percent.68
Much of the food available at schools is sold
not in the cafeteria, however, but in vending
machines. Over that same period, the share of
soft drink consumption from vending machines increased 48 percent. And between
1994 and 2000, student access to vending machines increased from 61 to 67 percent in
middle schools and from 88 to 96 percent in
high schools.69 Schools have found it quite lucrative to enter into exclusive “pouring rights”
contracts with soft drink companies. In 2000,
73 percent of high schools had such a contract, as did 58 percent of middle schools, and
even 42 percent of elementary schools.70
Many schools also allow these companies to
advertise on school grounds—46 percent of
high schools, 29 percent of middle schools,
and 13 percent of elementary schools.
School vending machines dispense not only
soft drinks, but also snacks, while school
stores and snack bars also sell soft drinks and
snacks. In fact, among elementary schools
with such student access, more than 50 percent sell cookies, crackers, cakes, pastries,
and salty snacks. The share grows to more
than 60 percent for middle schools and more
than 80 percent for high schools.71 School
cafeterias also sell these products Г la carte,
in competition with the National School
Lunch Program. Sales of such competing
foods are often an important part of the
school budget, as most school food service
programs must be self-supporting. These
34
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
sales often do more than subsidize the food
service program, however. Increasingly,
schools are using money raised through competitive food sales to supplement general
budgets. One change in budgetary pressure
on schools is the increased focus on academic
accountability, which has also squeezed out
other areas of study, such as nutrition and
physical education, and even reduced the
time available for lunch.72
Some observers have speculated that these
changes in the school environment may have
contributed to the increase in childhood
overweight and obesity, though relatively few
serious studies have been undertaken.73 In a
recent working paper we found that school financial pressures are linked to the availability
of junk food in middle and high schools. We
estimated that a 10 percentage point increase
in the availability of junk food increases average BMI by 1 percent. For adolescents with
an overweight parent the effect is double.74
Effects of this size can explain about a quarter of the increase in average BMI of adolescents over the 1990s. Diane Schanzenbach
focuses not on the competing foods in
schools but on the National School Lunch
Program.75 She finds that for children who
enter kindergarten with similar obesity rates,
those who eat the school lunch are about 2
percentage points more likely to be overweight at the end of first grade. Changes in
the school lunch program, however, could
not clearly explain the increase in obesity
over time, although between 1991–92 and
1998–99 the number of calories in an elementary school lunch increased a little, from
715 to 738. For secondary school lunches, on
the other hand, calories have declined over
this same period, from 820 to 798.76
As noted, it appears that physical activity has
been squeezed out of schools to make room
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Figure 6. Labor Force Participation Rate of Married Women with Children
Percent
90
80
5.3%
5.5%
15.4%
10.4%
70
Age 6–17
60
Under age 6
50
40
30
20
1970
1974
1978
1982
1986
1990
1994
1998
Year
Sources: NHANES data; LFP rates are from various years of the Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract of the United States.
Notes: Shaded areas represent years over which BMI measures are available. The percentage of children overweight in those NHANES data
is shown.
for more academics. The National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State
Departments of Education recently stressed
the importance of recess and free play, observing that 40 percent of elementary schools
have reduced, deleted, or are considering
deleting recess since 1989, when 90 percent
of schools had some form of recess.77 Trends
in physical education (PE) in high school are
a bit less clear, with enrollment moving up
and down during the 1990s. The trend for
daily PE attendance is downward, though,
with about 42 percent of schools reporting it
in 1991 and just 29 percent by 2003.78 More
generally, Karen MacPherson notes that
since the late 1970s, children have seen a 25
percent drop in play and a 50 percent drop in
unstructured outdoor activities.79 One potential culprit is an increase in homework between 1981 and 1997, especially for the
youngest students. Sandra Hofferth and John
Sandberg report that while time spent studying was up 20 percent overall, for children
aged six to eight it rose 146 percent.80
Another source of a drop in unstructured
play is the increase in the number of children
in child care centers after school. Figure 6 il-
lustrates the basic trends in maternal employment for preschool-age and school-age
children, again superimposing children’s obesity rates over the four periods for which
NHANES data are available. Note that the
quality of child care used varies, so it is unclear whether being in child care per se affects children’s obesity. Nonetheless, clearly
the potential for less physical activity, more
sedentary activities, more sweet drinks, and
more energy-dense snacks exists when children move from parental care to a child care
setting. It is worth noting, however, that the
increase in labor force participation (LFP)
appears fairly continuous from 1970 through
about 1988 before flattening out in the
1990s, with no sudden increase between
1980 and 1988. Although the exact timing of
the change is not entirely consistent with the
timing of the increase in obesity, it remains
worthwhile to investigate the changing role
of parents more fully.
Changes in the Role of Parents
One major change over the past thirty years
is the number of children with both parents
(or their single parent) in the labor force.
This change in the home environment may
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explain the increase in consumption both of
food away from home and of pre-prepared
foods, as families value convenience more
highly. That is, the food market may have
changed because of consumer demand stemming from the increase in households with no
full-time homemaker. Note, though, that
studies of the effect of maternal employment
on the quality of children’s diets tend to find
no relationship.81 Nevertheless, a more recent study that directly examines how maternal employment affects childhood obesity
concludes that a ten-hour increase in average
hours worked each week over a child’s lifetime increases the probability that the child is
obese by about 1 percentage point.82 The
study finds that it is not the work per se that
affects children’s overweight and obesity, but
rather the intensity of the mothers’ work.
This difference may explain why previous
studies found no real effect of work on children’s diets and is in line with the idea that
more time at work takes away from time
spent preparing nutritious meals.
With less intensive work hours, mothers may
also spend more time supervising active play.
Similarly, having two parents working full
time may also discourage walking or biking to
school, as it may fit parents’ schedules better
to drop the children off at school on the way
to work. To the extent that maternal employment affects children’s physical activity,
rather than nutrition, both sets of studies may
be reconciled.
Increasing maternal employment may also
affect the incidence or length of breastfeeding. The labor force participation rate of
married women with children under age one,
about 31 percent in 1975, increased to 54 and
55 percent by 1990 and 2003, respectively.83
Nevertheless, the share of children ever
breast-fed has been increasing, as has the
36
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
fraction breast-fed at older ages. Based on
NHANES data, about 25 percent of children
aged two to six in 1971–74 were ever breastfed, compared to 26 percent in 1976–80. By
1988–94 almost 54 percent were ever breastfed, increasing again by 1999–2002 to 62 percent. Over this same period the share breastfed for at least three months rose from 55
percent to 74 percent, and the share breastfed for at least one year rose from 7 percent
to almost 25 percent. The National Survey of
Family Growth does not show quite as consistent a pattern. It finds that the share of babies who were breast-fed rose from about 30
percent in 1972–74 to 58 percent in 1993–94.
At the same time, the share breast-fed for
three months or longer fell from 62 percent
to 56 percent, after having risen to 68 percent in 1981–83.84 Overall, though, these
trends do not appear to make breast-feeding
a good candidate for explaining the increase
in childhood overweight.
Another area where parental roles may be
important in explaining childhood obesity is
television. For example, school-age children
of working parents may now increasingly
spend their afternoon hours unsupervised,
which may increase their screen time. More
generally, parents make decisions about the
number and placement of televisions in a
home. In 1970, 35 percent of homes had
more than one television, 6 percent had three
or more, and just 6 percent of sixth graders
had one in their bedroom. By 1999 fully 88
percent of homes had more than one, 60 percent had three or more, and a whopping 77
percent of sixth graders had a television in
their bedroom.85 Nonetheless, the Hofferth
and Sandberg study finds that for children
aged three to twelve, weekly television viewing dropped four hours between 1981 and
1997.86 Reliable and representative data on
people’s television viewing are relatively diffi-
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Figure 7. Average Daily Minutes of TV Watching, All Viewers
Minutes per person
450
440
5.5%
5.3%
15.4%
10.4%
430
420
410
400
390
380
370
360
350
1970
1974
1978
1982
1986
1990
1994
1998
Year
Sources: NHANES data; daily television minutes are from various years of Nielsen Media’s 2000 Report on Television.
Notes: Shaded areas represent years over which BMI measures are available. The percentage of children overweight in those data is shown.
cult to come by because of the need for detailed diary keeping. But Nielsen Media Research is well known for its measurements of
television audiences, which are used to set
advertising rates.
Based on Nielsen data, overall daily minutes
of television watching have climbed in recent
decades.87 Figure 7 shows the average daily
minutes per person from 1970 to 1999, again
superimposing children’s obesity rates over
the four periods for which NHANES data are
available. The overall daily increase of almost
an hour and a half is relatively concentrated
in the early 1980s (perhaps because of increasing cable penetration), the same time
when the increase in obesity began in
earnest. And viewing appears to be continuing to increase, as is obesity. These data, however, are for all television viewers, not children specifically. In its annual reports,
Nielsen presents weekly viewing for separate
age groups. Although these subgroup numbers are fairly noisy and not consistently defined across all years, children’s viewing appears to be between 70 and 90 percent of
overall viewing, but it also seems to have declined over time. For example, in 1982 overall weekly viewing was 28.4 hours, while for
children aged six to eleven it was 24 hours.
For teens it was about 21 hours for females
and 24 hours for males. In 1999 overall
weekly viewing was still just over 28 hours,
but viewing time of both younger children
and teens had fallen to 19.7 hours.88
Children may be substituting other forms of
media, including videos, video games, and
the Internet, for television watching. According to a 1999 study, children spent 19.3 hours
a week watching television, another 2.3 hours
playing video games, and 2.5 hours in front of
the computer, implying just over one day
(24.1 hours) of “screen time” a week.89 Note
that the television hours in this report are
similar to the Nielsen numbers for that year.
It may be reasonable to consider the overall
Nielsen trend to be an approximation of children’s screen time, with the decrease in children’s television viewing relative to adults’ resulting from the fact that children sometimes
choose video games or play on the computer
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instead of watching television. Although precise evidence on children’s total screen time
is not easily obtainable, the available data
generally support the possibility that changes
in screen time may be an important contributor to the increase in childhood obesity.
Perhaps one of the biggest influences of parents on children’s overweight and obesity is
genetic. As noted, genetics alone cannot explain the increases in obesity in recent
decades. But parents may pass along to their
children a susceptibility to overweight in the
presence of energy imbalance. Changes in
the environment that affect energy intake or
expenditure could then trigger weight gain in
this susceptible population. Differentiating
clearly between the extent to which nature or
nurture is responsible for the strong correlation between parent and child BMI can be
difficult, though. It is known, for example,
that parents influence children’s food selection.90 Genetics and behavior can thus interact as both parents and children gain weight
in households where more energy-dense
foods are available. Similarly, children’s physical activity can be affected by how active
their parents are. Again, genes and behavior
will interact as households engage in more
sedentary behaviors, with both parents and
children gaining weight.
Conclusion
The increase in childhood obesity seems to
have begun between 1980 and 1988 and then
continued during the 1990s.This period also
saw children’s environments change in multiple ways that research suggests might be contributing to the obesity epidemic.
38
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
Over the critical time period, calorie-dense
convenience foods and soft drinks were both
increasingly available to children at school
and increasingly advertised to children. Children consumed more soda pop. They also
consumed more pre-prepared food and consumed more food away from home, as increases in dual-career or single-parent working families may have driven up demand for
convenience. A host of environmental
changes also contributed to reducing children’s activity levels over the period in question. In particular, children traveled more in
cars and were less likely to walk to school
than they were in the early 1970s. Changes in
the built environment and in their parents’
work lives also made it more difficult for children to engage in safe, unsupervised (or
lightly supervised) physical activity. Finally,
children spent more time in such sedentary
activities as watching television, playing video
games, and using computers.
Taken together, research on obesity singles
out no one critical cause of the increase in
children’s obesity. Rather, many complementary developments seem to have upset the
crucial energy balance by simultaneously increasing children’s energy intake and decreasing their energy expenditure. The challenge in formulating policies to address
children’s obesity is not necessarily to determine what changed to create the current epidemic, but rather, what is the most effective
way to change children’s environment and restore their energy balance going forward.
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Notes
1. In imperial measurements, BMI is calculated as (weight in pounds/[height in inches]2) x 703.
2. National Institutes of Health, Clinical Guidelines on the Identification, Evaluation, and Treatment of Overweight and Obesity in Adults: The Evidence Report, NIH publication 98-4083 (September 1998).
3. William H. Dietz and Mary C. Bellizzi, “Introduction: The Use of Body Mass Index to Assess Obesity in
Children,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 70 (1999): 123S–125S.
4. In the medical literature the nomenclature used to describe children’s and adults’ weight is somewhat different. Adults with BMI above the cutoffs described above are either “overweight” or “obese.” Children
with BMIs above the 85th percentile are termed “at-risk-of-overweight,” and those with BMIs above the
95th percentile are termed “overweight.” To avoid confusion in comparisons between adults and children,
we will term the former group of children “overweight” and the latter group “obese.”
5. These
percentile
cutoffs
are
available
at
www.cdc.gov/nchs/about/major/nhanes/growthcharts/
clinical_charts.htm#Clin%201 (September 26, 2005).
6. For more information on the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, see the Centers for Disease Control website at www.cdc.gov/nchs/nhanes.htm (September 26, 2005).
7. These authors’ calculations are based on the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys. The data
include children aged two to nineteen and adults aged twenty to seventy. We exclude individuals with a
BMI above 50, which drops a small number (fewer than 100) of individuals in each year. The data are
weighted using the examination weight since we use the height and weight that are collected in the medical examination module to define BMI.
8. Obesity rates based on BMI cutoffs may understate obesity among adult women. The cutoff to define obese
for both adult women and adult men is 30, but men likely have more lean muscle mass for a given BMI.
9. Robert C. Whitaker and others, “Predicting Obesity in Young Adulthood from Childhood and Parental
Obesity,” New England Journal of Medicine 337 (1997): 869–73.
10. Obesity rates are also higher among Hispanic children than among white non-Hispanic children. However,
it is impossible to consistently define Hispanic across the different NHANES surveys. “Low income”
roughly corresponds to children in families in the lowest quartile of family income. However, each
NHANES survey reports family income in categories, and the categories do not always correspond to the
level of family income that defines the lowest quartile. The income cutoffs used for each year and the mapping between NHANES income categories and income quartiles are available from the authors on request.
11. Gloria E. Zakus, “Obesity in Children and Adolescents: Understanding and Treating the Problem,” Social
Work in Health Care 8 (1982): 11–29.
12. World Health Organization, “Obesity: Preventing and Managing the Global Epidemic—Report of the
WHO Consultation on Obesity” (Geneva: WHO, 1997).
13. Albert J. Stunkard and others, “The Body-Mass Index of Twins Who Have Been Reared Apart,” New England Journal of Medicine 322 (1990): 1483–87.
14. Claude Bouchard and others, “The Response to Long-Term Overfeeding in Identical Twins,” New England
Journal of Medicine 322 (1990): 1477–82.
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15. Leanne L. Birch and M. Deysher, “Caloric Compensation and Sensory Specific Satiety: Evidence for SelfRegulation of Food Intake by Young Children,” Appetite 7 (1986): 323–31.
16. Jennifer O. Fisher, Barbara J. Rolls, and Leann L. Birch, “Children’s Bite Size and Intake of an Entrée Are
Greater with Larger Portions Than with Age-Appropriate or Self-Selected Portions,” American Journal of
Clinical Nutrition 77 (2003): 1164–70.
17. Sahasporn Paeratukul and others, “Fast-Food Consumption among U.S. Adults and Children: Dietary and
Nutrient Intake Profile,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 103 (2003): 1332–38.
18. Cara B. Ebbeling and others, “Compensation for Energy Intake from Fast Food among Overweight and
Lean Adolescents,” Journal of the American Medical Association 291 (2004): 2828–33.
19. Olivia M. Thompson and others, “Food Purchased Away from Home as a Predictor of Change in BMI
z-Score among Girls,” International Journal of Obesity 28 (2004): 282–89.
20. David S. Ludwig, Karen E. Peterson, and Steven L. Gortmaker, “Relation between Consumption of SugarSweetened Drinks and Childhood Obesity: A Prospective, Observational Analysis,” Lancet 357 (2001):
505–08; Janet James and others, “Preventing Childhood Obesity by Reducing Consumption of Carbonated
Drinks: Cluster Randomized Controlled Trial,” British Medical Journal 328 (2004): 1237–40; Richard P.
Troiano and others, “Energy and Fat Intakes of Children and Adolescents in the United States: Data from
the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 72, supplement (2000): 1343–53S.
21. Barbara A. Dennison, Helen L. Rockwell, and Sharon L. Baker, “Excess Fruit Juice Consumption by
Preschool-Aged Children Is Associated with Short Stature and Obesity,” Pediatrics 99 (1997): 15–22; Jean
D. Skinner and others, “Fruit Juice Intake Is Not Related to Children’s Growth,” Pediatrics 103 (1999):
58–64; Jean D. Skinner and Betty Ruth Carruth, “A Longitudinal Study of Children’s Juice Intake and
Growth: The Juice Controversy Revisited,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 101 (2001):
432–37.
22. Jean A. Welsh and others, “Overweight among Low-Income Preschool Children Associated with the Consumption of Sweet Drinks: Missouri, 1999–2002,” Pediatrics 115 (2005): 223–29.
23. Ranganathan Rajeshwari and others, “Secular Trends in Children’s Sweetened-Beverage Consumption
(1973 to 1994): The Bogalusa Heart Study,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 105 (2005):
208–14.
24. Catherine S. Berkey and others, “Sugar-Added Beverages and Adolescent Weight Change,” Obesity Research 12 (2004): 778–88.
25. Linda G. Bandini and others, “Comparison of High-Calorie, Low-Nutrient-Dense Food Consumption
among Obese and Non-Obese Adolescents,” Obesity Research 7 (2000): 438–43.
26. Sarah M. Phillips and others, “Energy-Dense Snack Food Intake in Adolescence: Longitudinal Relationship to Weight and Fatness,” Obesity Research 12 (2004): 461–72.
27. World Health Organization, “Obesity: Preventing and Managing the Global Epidemic” (see note 12).
28. Linda G. Bandini, Dale A. Schoeller, and William H. Dietz, “Energy Expenditure in Obese and Nonobese
Adolescents,” Pediatric Research 27 (1990): 198–203.
40
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29. James F. Sallis, Judith J. Prochaska, and Wendell C. Taylor, “A Review of Correlates of Physical Activity of
Children and Adolescents,” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 32 (2003): 963–75.
30. C. Klein-Platat and others, “Physical Activity Is Inversely Related to Waist Circumference in 12-Year-Old
French Adolescents,” International Journal of Obesity 29 (2005): 9–14.
31. Catherine S. Berkey and others, “One-Year Changes in Activity and in Inactivity among 10- to 15-Year-Old
Boys and Girls: Relationship to Change in Body Mass Index,” Pediatrics 111 (2003): 836–43.
32. Jennifer Utter and others, “Couch Potatoes or French Fries: Are Sedentary Behaviors Associated with
Body Mass Index, Physical Activity, and Dietary Behaviors among Adolescents?” Journal of the American
Dietetic Association 103 (2003): 1298–1305.
33. William H. Dietz and Steven L. Gortmaker, “Do We Fatten Our Children at the Television Set? Obesity
and Television Viewing in Children and Adolescents,” Pediatrics 75 (1985): 807–12.
34. Robert C. Klesges, Mary L. Shelton, and Lisa M. Klesges, “Effects of Television on Metabolic Rate: Potential Implications for Childhood Obesity,” Pediatrics 91 (1993): 281–86.
35. See, for example, William H. Dietz, “TV or Not TV: Fat Is the Question,” Pediatrics 91 (1993): 499–501;
Maciej S. Buchowski and Ming Sun, “Energy Expenditure, Television Viewing, and Obesity,” International
Journal of Obesity 20 (1996): 236–44.
36. Steven L. Gortmaker, Karen E. Peterson, and Jean Wiecha, “Reducing Obesity via a School-Based Interdisciplinary Intervention among Youth: Planet Health,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 153
(1999): 409–18; Carlos J. Crespo and others, “Television Watching, Energy Intake, and Obesity in U.S.
Children: Results from the Third National Health Examination Survey, 1988–1994,” Archives of Pediatric
and Adolescent Medicine 155 (2001): 360–65; Thomas N. Robinson and others, “Does Television Viewing
Increase Obesity and Reduce Physical Activity? Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Analyses among Adolescent Girls,” Pediatrics 91 (1993): 273–80; Elizabeth A. Vandewater, Mi-suk Shim, and Allison G. Caplovitz,
“Linking Obesity and Activity Level with Children’s Television and Video Game Use,” Journal of Adolescence 27 (2004): 71–85.
37. Thomas N. Robinson, “Reducing Children’s Television Viewing to Prevent Obesity: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” Journal of the American Medical Association 282 (1999): 1561–67; Leonard H. Epstein and
others, “Effects of Manipulating Sedentary Behavior on Physical Activity and Food Intake,” Journal of Pediatrics 140 (2002): 334–39.
38. Richard S. Strauss and Harold A. Pollack, “Epidemic Increase in Childhood Overweight, 1986–1998,”
Journal of the American Medical Association 286 (2001): 2845–48.
39. Center for Rural Pennsylvania, Overweight Children in Pennsylvania (Harrisburg, Pa.: January 2005)
(www.ruralpa.org/Overweight_child.pdf (September 26, 2005]).
40. Michael S. Kramer, “Do Breast-Feeding and Delayed Introduction of Solid Foods Protect against Subsequent Obesity?” Journal of Pediatrics 98 (1981): 883–87; Rüdiger von Kries and others, “Breast Feeding
and Obesity: Cross-Sectional Study,” British Medical Journal 319 (1999): 147–50; Matthew W. Gillman and
others, “Risk of Overweight among Adolescents Who Were Breast-Fed as Infants,” Journal of the American
Medical Association 285 (2001): 2461–67; Karl E. Bergmann and others, “Early Determinants of Childhood Overweight and Adiposity in a Birth Cohort Study: Role of Breast-Feeding,” International Journal of
Obesity 27 (2003): 162–72.
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41. Mary L. Hediger and others, “Association between Infant Breastfeeding and Overweight in Young Children,” Journal of the American Medical Association 285 (2001): 2453–60.
42. Stephan Arenz and others, “Breast-Feeding and Childhood Obesity—a Systematic Review,” International
Journal of Obesity 28 (2004): 1247–56.
43. William H. Dietz, “Breastfeeding May Help Prevent Childhood Overweight,” Journal of the American
Medical Association 285 (2001): 2506–07.
44. Melissa C. Nelson, Penny Gordon-Larson, and Linda S. Adair, “Are Adolescents Who Were Breast-Fed
Less Likely to Be Overweight? Analyses of Sibling Pairs to Reduce Confounding,” Epidemiology 16 (2005):
247–53.
45. Judy Putnam and Shirley Gerrior, “Trends in the U.S. Food Supply, 1970–97,” in America’s Eating Habits:
Changes and Consequences, edited by Elizabeth Frazao, USDA Agriculture Information Bulletin no. 750
(Washington: USDA, 1999), pp. 133–59 (www.ers.usda.gov/publications/aib750/ [September 26, 2005]).
46. Simone A. French, Bing-Hwan Lin, and Joanne Guthrie, “National Trends in Soft Drink Consumption
among Children and Adolescents Age 6 to 17 Years: Prevalence, Amounts, and Sources, 1977/1978 to
1994/1998,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 103 (2003): 1326–31.
47. J. Michael Harris and others, “The U.S. Food Marketing System, 2002: Competition, Coordination, and
Technological Innovations into the 21st Century,” USDA Agricultural Economic Report no. 811 (Washington: USDA, 2002) (www.ers.usda.gov/publications/aer811/ [September 26, 2005]).
48. Dina L. G. Borzekowski and Thomas N. Robinson, “The 30-Second Effect: An Experiment Revealing the
Impact of Television Commercials on Food Preferences of Preschoolers,” Journal of the American Dietetic
Association 101 (2001): 42–46.
49. Todd J. Zywicki, Debra Holt, and Maureen K. Ohlhausen, “Obesity and Advertising Policy” (Washington:
Georgetown University Law Center mimeo, 2004) (contact author: [email protected]).
50. Howard L. Taras and Miriam Gage, “Advertised Foods on Children’s Television,” Archives of Pediatrics &
Adolescent Medicine 149 (1995): 649–52.
51. French, Lin, and Guthrie, “National Trends in Soft Drink Consumption” (see note 46).
52. Bing-Hwan Lin, Joanne Guthrie, and Elizabeth Frazao, “Nutrient Contribution of Food Away from
Home,” in America’s Eating Habits, edited by Frazao, pp. 213–42.
53. Shin-Yi Chou, Michael Grossman, and Henry Saffer, “An Economic Analysis of Adult Obesity: Results
from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System,” Journal of Health Economics 23 (2004): 565–87.
54. David M. Cutler, Edward L. Glaeser, and Jesse M. Shapiro, “Why Have Americans Become More Obese?”
Journal of Economic Perspectives 17 (2003): 93–118.
55. Barbara J. Rolls, Dianne Engell, and Leann L. Birch, “Serving Portion Size Influences 5-Year-Old but Not
3-Year-Old Children’s Food Intakes,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 100 (2000): 232–34.
56. Lisa R. Young and Marion Nestle, “The Contribution of Expanding Portion Sizes to the U.S. Obesity Epidemic,” American Journal of Public Health 92 (2002): 246–49.
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57. Darius N. Lakdawalla and Tomas J. Philipson, “Technological Change and the Growth of Obesity,” Working Paper 8946 (Cambridge, Mass.: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2002).
58. Howard Elitzak, Food Cost Review, 1950–97, USDA Agricultural Economic Report no. 780 (Washington:
USDA, 1999) (www.ers.usda.gov/publications/aer780/ [September 26, 2005]).
59. Adam Drewnowski, “Obesity and the Food Environment: Dietary Energy Density and Diet Costs,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 27 (2004): 154–62; Adam Drewnowski, Nicole Damon, and André
Brien, “Replacing Fats and Sweets with Vegetables and Fruits—A Question of Cost,” American Journal of
Public Health 94 (2004): 1555–59.
60. Jane Reed, Elizabeth Frazao, and Rachel Itskowitz, “How Much Do Americans Pay for Fruits and Vegetables?” USDA Agriculture Information Bulletin no. 790 (Washington: USDA, 1999).
61. Tomas J. Philipson and Richard A. Posner, “The Long-Run Growth in Obesity as a Function of Technological Change,” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 46 (2003): S87–S107.
62. Reid Ewing, Rolf Pendall, and Don Chen, Measuring Sprawl and Its Impact, Smart Growth America Report (Washington: Smart Growth America, 2002) (www.smartgrowthamerica.org/sprawlindex/sprawlreport.html [September 26, 2005]).
63. Patricia S. Hu and Timothy R. Reuscher, Summary of Travel Trends: 2001 National Household Travel Survey, USDOT Federal Highway Administration Report (Washington: USDOT, 2004) (http://nhts.ornl.gov/
2001/reports.shtml [September 26, 2005]).
64. James Corless and Gloria Ohland, Caught in the Crosswalk: Pedestrian Safety in California, Surface Transportation Policy Project Report (San Francisco: Surface Transportation Policy Project, 1999) (www.transact.org/ca/caught99/caught.htm [September 26, 2005]).
65. Beldon Russonello and Stewart Research and Communications, Americans’ Attitudes toward Walking and
Creating Better Walking Communities, Surface Transportation Policy Project Report (Washington: Beldon
Russonello & Stewart Research and Communications, 2003) (www.transact.org/report.asp?id=205/) [September 26, 2005]).
66. Christopher Kouri, “Wait for the Bus: How Low-Country School Site Selection and Design Deter Walking
to School and Contribute to Urban Sprawl,” Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University
Report prepared for the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, 1999 (www.scccl.org/pgm_over_reports.html [September 26, 2005]).
67. Ashley R. Cooper and others, “Commuting to School: Are Children Who Walk More Physically Active?”
American Journal of Preventive Medicine 25 (2003): 273–76.
68. French, Lin, and Guthrie, “National Trends in Soft Drink Consumption” (see note 46).
69. Patricia M. Anderson, Kristin F. Butcher, and Philip B. Levine, “Economic Perspectives on Childhood Obesity,” Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, Economic Perspectives 3Q (2003): 30–48 (www.chicagofed.org/
economic_research_and_data/economic_perspectives.cfm [September 26, 2005]).
70. Ibid.
71. Howell Weschler and others, “Food Service and Foods and Beverages Available at School: Results from the
School Health Policies and Programs Study 2000,” Journal of School Health 71 (2001): 313–24.
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72. U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Foods Sold in Competition with USDA School Meal Programs,” a Report to Congress, January 12, 2001; U.S. General Accounting Office, “School Lunch Program: Efforts
Needed to Improve Nutrition and Encourage Healthy Eating,” GAO-03-506, Report to Congressional Requesters, May 2003.
73. Robert Colin Carter, “The Impact of Public Schools on Childhood Obesity,” Journal of the American Medical Association 17 (2002): 2180; Ellen J. Fried and Marion Nestle, “The Growing Political Movement
against Soft Drinks in Schools,” Journal of the American Medical Association 17 (2002): 2181.
74. Patricia M. Anderson and Kristin F. Butcher, “Reading, Writing, and Raisinets: Are School Finances Contributing to Children’s Obesity?” Working Paper 11177 (Cambridge, Mass.: National Bureau of Economic
Research, 2005).
75. Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, “Do School Lunches Contribute to Childhood Obesity?” (University of
Chicago, mimeo, 2005).
76. U.S. General Accounting Office, “School Lunch Program” (see note 72).
77. National Association of Early Childhood Development Specialists in State Departments of Education, “Recess and the Importance of Play,” A Position Statement on Young Children and Recess, 2001
(www.eric.ed.gov [September 26, 2005]).
78. Centers for Disease Control, “Participation in High School Physical Education—United States,
1991–2003,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 53 (2004): 844–47.
79. Karen MacPherson, “Development Experts Say Children Suffer due to Lack of Unstructured Fun,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 1, 2002 (www.post-gazette.com/lifestyle/20021001childsplay1001fnp3.asp
[September 26, 2005]).
80. Sandra L. Hofferth and John F. Sandberg, “Changes in American Children’s Time, 1981–1997,” in Children at the Millennium: Where Have We Come From, Where Are We Going? edited by Timothy Owens
and Sandra Hofferth (New York: Elsevier Science, 2001), pp. 193–229.
81. Rachel K. Johnson, Helen Smiciklas-Wright, and Ann C. Crouter, “Effect of Maternal Employment on the
Quality of Young Children’s Diets: The CSFII Experience,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association
92 (1992): 213–14; Rachel K. Johnson and others, “Maternal Employment and the Quality of Young Children’s Diets: Empirical Evidence Based on the 1987–1988 Nationwide Food Consumption Survey,” Pediatrics 90 (1992): 245–49.
82. Patricia M. Anderson, Kristin F. Butcher, and Philip B. Levine, “Maternal Employment and Overweight
Children,” Journal of Health Economics 22 (2003): 477–504.
83. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2004–2005 (Washington, 2004)
(www.census.gov/statab/www/ [September 26, 2005]).
84. National Center for Health Statistics, Health, United States, 2004, with Chartbook on Trends in the Health
of Americans (Hyattsville, Md., 2004) (www.cdc.gov/nchs/hus.htm [September 26, 2005]).
85. Donald F. Roberts and others, Kids & Media @ the New Millennium, a Kaiser Family Foundation Report,
November 1999 (www.kff.org/entmedia/1535-index.cfm [September 26, 2005]).
44
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86. Hofferth and Sandberg, “Changes in American Children’s Time, 1981–1997” (see note 80).
87. Nielsen Media Research, 2000 Report on Television: The First 50 Years (New York: Nielsen Media Research, 2000).
88. A. C. Nielsen Company, Report on Television (Northbrook, Ill.: A. C. Nielsen Company, 1983); Nielsen
Media Research, 2000 Report on Television (see note 87).
89. Roberts and others, Kids & Media @ the New Millennium (see note 85).
90. Robert C. Klesges and others, “Parental Influence on Food Selection in Young Children and Its Relationships to Childhood Obesity,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 53 (1991): 859–64.
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The Consequences of Childhood
Overweight and Obesity
Stephen R. Daniels
Summary
Researchers are only gradually becoming aware of the gravity of the risk that overweight and
obesity pose for children’s health. In this article Stephen Daniels documents the heavy toll that
the obesity epidemic is taking on the health of the nation’s children. He discusses both the immediate risks associated with childhood obesity and the longer-term risk that obese children
and adolescents will become obese adults and suffer other health problems as a result.
Daniels notes that many obesity-related health conditions once thought applicable only to
adults are now being seen in children and with increasing frequency. Examples include high
blood pressure, early symptoms of hardening of the arteries, type 2 diabetes, nonalcoholic fatty
liver disease, polycystic ovary disorder, and disordered breathing during sleep.
He systematically surveys the body’s systems, showing how obesity in adulthood can damage
each and how childhood obesity exacerbates the damage. He explains that obesity can harm the
cardiovascular system and that being overweight during childhood can accelerate the development of heart disease. The processes that lead to a heart attack or stroke start in childhood and
often take decades to progress to the point of overt disease. Obesity in childhood, adolescence,
and young adulthood may accelerate these processes. Daniels shows how much the same generalization applies to other obesity-related disorders—metabolic, digestive, respiratory, skeletal, and psychosocial—that are appearing in children either for the first time or with greater
severity or prevalence.
Daniels notes that the possibility has even been raised that the increasing prevalence and
severity of childhood obesity may reverse the modern era’s steady increase in life expectancy,
with today’s youth on average living less healthy and ultimately shorter lives than their parents—the first such reversal in lifespan in modern history. Such a possibility, he concludes,
makes obesity in children an issue of utmost public health concern.
www.futureofchildren.org
Stephen R. Daniels is a professor of pediatrics and environmental health at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and Cincinnati
Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
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Stephen R. Daniels
H
ealth professionals have
long known that being overweight carries many serious
health risks for adults. Medical researchers have also
investigated how obesity affects the health of
children and adolescents, but work in this
area has advanced more slowly. The epidemic of overweight and obesity in children
and adolescents, however, has intensified the
pace of research. In the face of this new epidemic, researchers are raising the question
of whether children face the same set of
health risks as adults—or whether their risks
are unique. The answer, to a certain extent,
is both. Many health conditions once
thought applicable only to adults are now
being seen in children and with increasing
frequency. Even if the conditions do not appear as symptoms until adulthood, they may
appear earlier than usual in a person’s lifetime if the person had weight problems in
childhood. Further, children are also more
vulnerable to a unique set of obesity-related
health problems because their bodies are
growing and developing.
In this article, I will discuss both the adverse
outcomes associated with childhood obesity
and the risk that obese children and adolescents will become obese adults and be exposed to other health problems.
The obesity epidemic is taking a heavy toll
on the nation’s children. Some obesityrelated conditions are having an immediate
adverse effect on their health; others will
have more chronic long-term effects. Because of overweight and obesity, today’s
young people may, on average, live less
healthy and ultimately shorter lives than
their parents. The epidemic is an issue of urgent public health concern.
48
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
Adverse Health Outcomes
in Children
As the prevalence and severity of childhood
obesity increase, concern about adverse
health outcomes in childhood and adolescence is rising. Table 1 shows the prevalence
in children and adolescents of various health
problems associated with obesity. In what
follows, I will provide details on how obesity
affects various important body systems. Obesity can cause great damage to the cardiovascular system, for example, and being overweight or obese during childhood can
accelerate the development of obesityrelated cardiovascular disease. Likewise,
obesity is linked with many disorders of the
metabolic system. Such disorders, heretofore seen primarily in adulthood, are now appearing in children. Even when the disorders do not present themselves in childhood,
childhood obesity or overweight increases
the risk of their developing in adulthood.
Much the same generalization applies to the
obesity-related disorders in the other bodily
systems.
Cardiovascular Problems
In the cardiovascular system, the heart
pumps blood, which is carried back and forth
between the heart and the body by blood
vessels. Arteries, which move blood from the
heart to the rest of the body, are not just simple tubes, but a dynamic series of conduits
that control blood flow. They are vulnerable
to many diseases that can ultimately lead, in
the case of coronary arteries, to a heart attack or, in the case of cerebral arteries, to a
stroke. The heart muscle is also vulnerable to
processes that thicken it and diminish its
function. The critical risk factors for heart attack or stroke—diabetes, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, and cigarette
smoking—are well known.
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The Consequences of Childhood Overweight and Obesity
Table 1. Disorders Related to Childhood Obesity, by Body System
System and disorder
Estimated prevalence
in pediatric populations
Explanation
Cardiovascular
Hypertension
High blood pressure
2–4%
Left ventricular hypertrophy
Increased thickness of the heart’s main pumping chamber
Unknown
Atherosclerosis
Hardening of the arteries
50% (fatty streaks)
8% (fibrous plaques)
4% (>40 in those with stenosis)
Insulin resistance
The process in which the action of insulin is retarded
Unknown
Dyslipidemia
Abnormal changes in cholesterol and triglycerides (fats)
in the blood
5-10%
Metabolic syndrome
Constellation of risk factors including increased waist circumference, elevated blood pressure, increased triglyceride and
decreased HDL-cholesterol concentrations, and raised plasma
glucose
4% overall, 30% in obese
Type 2 diabetes
A condition in which the body either makes too little insulin or
cannot properly use the insulin it makes, leading to elevated
blood glucose
1–15 persons per 100,000
overall, almost all in obese
Asthma
A chronic inflammatory pulmonary disorder characterized by
reversible obstruction of the airways
7–9%
Obstructive sleep apnea
A breathing disorder characterized by interruptions of breathing
during sleep
1–5% overall, approx. 25%
in obese
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
Fatty inflammation of the liver not caused by excessive
alcohol use
3–8% overall, 50% in obese
Gastroesophageal reflux
Backward flow of stomach contents into the esophagus
2–20%
Tibia vara (Blount disease)
Bowing of children’s legs caused by a growth disturbance
in the proximal tibial epiphysis
Uncommon
Slipped capital-femoral epiphysis
A disorder of the hip’s growth plate
1–8 persons per 100,000
A mood disorder characterized by sadness and loss of interest
in usually satisfying activities
1–2% in children,
3–5% in adolescents
Polycystic ovary syndrome
A constellation of abnormalities including abnormal menses,
clinical manifestations of such androgen excess as acne and
excessive growth of hair, elevated levels of circulatory androgens,
and polycystic ovaries on ultrasound evaluation
Unknown in adolescents,
5–10% in adult women
Pseudotumor cerebri
Raised intracranial pressure
Rare
Metabolic
Pulmonary
Gastrointestinal
Skeletal
Psychosocial
Depression
Other
Source: Author’s estimates based on various sources.
Until recently, most medical concerns about
children’s hearts involved birth defects. But
as advances in noninvasive testing have made
it possible to evaluate children’s hearts and
blood vessels, health professionals have discovered that some disease processes, such as
hardening of the arteries, once thought to be
predominantly adult health concerns can in
fact begin in childhood.
One major risk factor for heart attack and
stroke in adults is hypertension, or high blood
pressure.1 And obesity is an important contributor to developing high blood pressure not
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Stephen R. Daniels
only in adults, but also in children and adolescents.2 B. Rosner and several colleagues have
demonstrated that the odds of elevated blood
pressure are significantly higher for children
whose body mass index (BMI) is at or above
the 90th percentile than for those with BMI at
or below the 10th percentile. The risk of elevated blood pressure ranges from 2.5 to 3.7
times higher for the overweight children, depending on their race and sex.3
Recent national epidemiological studies have suggested
that today’s children and
adolescents have higher blood
pressure than did their
counterparts in past decades.
Recent national epidemiological studies have
suggested that today’s children and adolescents have higher blood pressure than did
their counterparts in past decades.4 P. Muntner and several colleagues have also found
that a portion of this increase in blood pressure is due to population trends for increased
overweight.5 As children on average have become more overweight, their blood pressure
on average has gone up. BMI during childhood and, to an even greater extent, the increase in BMI from childhood to adulthood
have been linked significantly with blood
pressure in adulthood.6 Overweight and
obese children and those who become even
more overweight in adulthood are more
likely than others to have high blood pressure
as adults.
Left ventricular hypertrophy, or increased
thickness of the heart’s main pumping cham50
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
ber, is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease in adults. Adults with high
blood pressure and with a left ventricular
mass index greater than 51 g/m have a fourfold increase in adverse cardiovascular outcomes.7 Left ventricular hypertrophy has
been associated with obesity and high blood
pressure in adults.
As with high blood pressure, left ventricular
hypertrophy has also been linked with increased BMI in children and adolescents.8
The most important aspect of body composition that affects left ventricular mass is lean
body mass, probably because the heart’s development matches the development of the
body’s muscles to which it must supply
blood.9 This appears to be a physiologic—
that is, normal—relationship. But fat mass
and systolic blood pressure also have a significant relationship with left ventricular mass.10
These more pathologic, or abnormal, relationships could lead to the increased heart
thickness that raises the risk of a heart attack.
In addition, among children with essential
hypertension (the most common form of high
blood pressure), increased BMI is linked
with more severe left ventricular hypertrophy.11 Left ventricular hypertrophy may thus
be another important pathway by which obesity can increase the future risk of cardiovascular disease in children.
Ultimately the most important process for
developing cardiovascular disease is hardening of the arteries, or atherosclerosis, which
begins as a fatty streak on the artery’s inner
lining and progresses into a fibrous plaque (a
raised lesion) that ultimately causes a heart
attack or a stroke by blocking blood flow to
the heart or to the brain. The well-known
risk factors for this progression in adults include cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, and diabetes.
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Whether obesity directly influences the progression of atherosclerosis in adults is not
clear.
Obesity’s role in the earliest stages of atherosclerosis during childhood has been even less
clear, in part because researchers lack noninvasive tools to evaluate the early atherosclerotic lesions. Two pathology studies, however,
have helped to clarify these relationships.
The Pathobiologic Determinants of Atherosclerosis in Youth (PDAY) and the Bogalusa
studies used autopsy data on adolescents and
young adults who died of accidental causes.12
Pathologists working on these autopsies were
able to observe directly the fatty streaks and
fibrous plaques in these young people’s arteries and to evaluate whether the presence of
these lesions was related to the known risk
factors for heart attack and stroke. In both
studies, measures of adiposity (or fat) were
significantly related to the presence of atherosclerotic lesions. In the Bogalusa study, an
increase in the number of risk factors, including overweight, high blood pressure, and
high cholesterol, was associated with a dramatically increased risk of atherosclerosis.13
In another study L. T. Mahoney and several
colleagues used electron beam computed tomography (EBCT) to evaluate calcium’s presence in the coronary arteries of young
adults.14 Calcium deposits provide an important indication of the progression of the atherosclerotic process. Mahoney’s team found
coronary calcium in approximately 30 percent of healthy young adult males and approximately 10 percent of young adult females in a normal sample (that is, the sample
did not consist only of overweight young people). They also found that increased weight
during childhood and a high body mass index
in young adulthood were linked with an increased risk of coronary artery calcium deposits in young adults.
All these studies provide important evidence
that obesity is detrimental to the heart and
blood vessels even in very young children.
Doctors know that the processes that lead to
a heart attack or stroke often take decades to
progress to overt disease. It now appears,
however, that these processes may be starting
earlier than once thought and that becoming
obese in childhood, adolescence, and young
adulthood may accelerate them. The current
generation of children may thus suffer the
adverse effects of cardiovascular disease at a
younger age than did previous generations,
despite the advent of new drugs to treat such
problems as high blood pressure and abnormal blood cholesterol.
Metabolic Disorders
The metabolic system is a complex set of interrelated processes that control how the
body uses and stores energy. It includes the
gastrointestinal tract, which governs absorption of nutrients and energy; the liver, which
is the body’s major metabolic organ; and a variety of hormonal systems that govern the
ebb and flow of nutrients and energy. The
system involves many overlapping components, each of which can, to some extent,
compensate for an abnormality in another.
But this compensation may often come at a
price of an increased risk for other adverse
health consequences.
Many metabolic disorders—among them insulin resistance, the metabolic syndrome, dyslipidemia (abnormal levels of fat in the
blood), and type 2 diabetes mellitus—have
been linked with obesity in adulthood.15 In
fact, many were long considered diseases of
adulthood. Type 2 diabetes had even been
called adult-onset diabetes. In the past fifteen
years, however, much has changed in this
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cents, with type 2 diabetes now appearing in
children as young as eight years old. Insulin
resistance, for example, or the process in
which the action of insulin is retarded, is a relatively new concern in the pediatric age
range. The precise mechanism for insulin resistance is unknown, but it often occurs in the
context of obesity and results in increased insulin secretion by the pancreas and increased
circulating levels of insulin. The increased insulin helps keep the blood sugar in the normal
The metabolic syndrome
is likely associated with
an increased risk of
cardiovascular disease
and diabetes even in
young people.
range but may cause other problems. J. Steinberger and several colleagues have shown that
obesity in children is associated with decreased insulin sensitivity and increased circulating insulin and that these abnormalities
persist into young adulthood.16 Increased circulating insulin may in turn raise blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
The metabolic syndrome is a constellation of
risk factors, including increased waist circumference, elevated blood pressure, increased triglyceride and decreased HDLcholesterol concentrations, and raised blood
sugar levels.17 The underlying risk factors for
the metabolic syndrome are abdominal obesity and insulin resistance. The metabolic
syndrome is an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease and for the development
of type 2 diabetes in adults.18 It may also be
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THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
associated with other abnormalities, including fatty liver disease, polycystic ovary disease, and obstructive sleep apnea.
Defining the metabolic syndrome has been
controversial in adults, so its definition has
been even more complicated in pediatric
populations. S. Cook and several colleagues
evaluated the prevalence of the metabolic
syndrome in children and adolescents using
an adaptation of one adult definition. They
found the metabolic syndrome in only 4 percent of all children but in 30 percent of children who are obese.19 R. Weiss and colleagues reported that each half-unit increase
in the BMI z score (equivalent to an increase
of half a standard deviation in BMI) resulted
in a roughly 50 percent increase in the risk of
the metabolic syndrome among overweight
children and adolescents.20
The metabolic syndrome is likely associated
with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes even in young people. The
Bogalusa study noted above showed that
young victims of accidental death who had a
number of metabolic syndrome factors had
increased atherosclerotic lesions. Such findings suggest that the risk associated with the
metabolic syndrome begins early in life.21
Obesity is associated with cholesterol abnormalities, often referred to as atherogenic dyslipidemia, that involve abnormal changes in
cholesterol and triglycerides (or fats) in the
blood.22 These abnormalities, which appear
to accelerate atherosclerosis, also occur in
obese children and adolescents.23
The prevalence of type 2 diabetes mellitus
has increased dramatically in adolescents—in
parallel with the increasing incidence and
severity of obesity.24 Type 2 diabetes is related to insulin resistance. Although the beta
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The Consequences of Childhood Overweight and Obesity
cells of the pancreas compensate for insulin
resistance by making more insulin, they may
not be able to keep up insulin production.
When that happens, blood sugar starts to increase, first in response to meals and then ultimately even in the fasting state. At that
point diabetes is present. In Cincinnati the
prevalence of type 2 diabetes in adolescents
increased tenfold between 1982 and 1994.25
In the Bogalusa study 2.4 percent of overweight adolescents developed type 2 diabetes
by age thirty while none of the lean adolescents did.26 An American Diabetes Association review has suggested that as many as 45
percent of newly diagnosed cases of diabetes
in children and adolescents are now type 2
diabetes.27
The increased prevalence of type 2 diabetes
raises concern about cardiovascular disease
risk. The National Cholesterol Education
Program has identified diabetes as a coronary
artery disease risk equivalent, meaning that
patients with diabetes face a similar risk for a
future adverse cardiovascular event as patients who have already had a heart attack or
a stroke caused by an arterial blockage.28
That finding suggests doctors should aggressively manage cardiovascular risk factors,
such as high blood pressure and cholesterol
in adults with diabetes, to prevent future illnesses and deaths from cardiovascular disease. If adolescents with type 2 diabetes have
this same advanced risk, they may be more
likely to have heart attacks, strokes, or heart
failure at a very young age, perhaps even in
their twenties and thirties. More research is
needed to determine the likelihood of this
happening and, if so, how best to prevent it.
Pulmonary Complications
The pulmonary system includes the lungs
and associated blood vessels. The lungs take
in air and exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide
in the blood. The right side of the heart
pumps blood through the pulmonary arteries
to small capillaries in the lungs where this exchange occurs. The oxygenated blood then
returns to the left side of the heart through
the pulmonary veins to be pumped by the left
ventricle to the body. Air is brought to the
lungs by the trachea, which is connected to
smaller and smaller airway branches, ultimately ending in the bronchioles where gas
exchange occurs.
In asthma, one of the most common respiratory diseases of childhood, the airways in the
lungs are constricted, either because inflammation causes the airways’ lining to swell or
because tightening of the smooth muscles
that surround the airways can reduce their
diameter. Asthma is generally thought to involve an allergic reaction, but much remains
to be learned about the specific genetic and
environmental factors that trigger the reaction. The prevalence and severity of childhood asthma have increased in the past two
decades, again in parallel with the increasing prevalence and severity of childhood
obesity.
Cross-sectional studies have demonstrated a
link between overweight and asthma in children, though the link may be complicated by
socioeconomic status, cigarette smoking, or
other variables.29 M. A. Rodriguez and colleagues found that children with a BMI
above the 85th percentile had an increased
risk of asthma independent of age, sex, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and exposure to
tobacco smoke. Their study also found socioeconomic status and cigarette smoking to
be independent predictors of asthma.30
It is not clear why obesity may increase the
risk of asthma. On the one hand, obesity has
been associated with increased inflammation,
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which could contribute to asthma. On the
other hand, children with asthma may have
only limited physical activity and may be
treated with corticosteroids, which may promote obesity development. Increased adipose mass could have a physical effect on
lung function. And an excess of abdominal fat
can alter lung function both through increasing the weight on the wall of muscle and
bone that surrounds the lungs and through
limiting the motion of the diaphragm. Stud-
Sleep-disordered breathing
may be one of the most
important but also most
under-recognized medical
complications in overweight
children and adolescents.
ies in adults with asthma have shown that
weight loss can improve pulmonary function,
but such studies have not yet been done in
children.31
Obesity and obstructive sleep apnea are
clearly related, both in adults and in children.
Obstructive sleep apnea, or an abnormal collapse of the airway during sleep, results in
snoring, irregular breathing, and disrupted
sleep patterns. Sleep disruption can lead to
excessive daytime sleepiness, which may itself decrease physical activity and heighten
the risk of further obesity. Daytime sleepiness may also harm school performance. Obstructive sleep apnea has also been associated
with learning disabilities and memory defects.32 G. B. Mallory and colleagues found
that one-third of young severely overweight
patients had symptoms associated with ob54
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
structive sleep apnea and 5 percent had severe obstructive sleep apnea.33
Obstructive sleep apnea can also have longterm adverse cardiovascular consequences.
In the short term, episodes of low oxygen levels in the blood cause temporary increases in
blood pressure in the pulmonary artery and
decrease blood flow in areas in the heart.34
Over the longer term, obstructive sleep
apnea can lead to daytime elevated blood
pressure, increased left ventricular mass, and
diastolic dysfunction (or an inability of the
heart to relax and fill with blood appropriately) of the left ventricle.35 Treating obstructive sleep apnea improves left ventricular
hypertrophy and cardiac function.36 Sleepdisordered breathing may be one of the most
important but also most under-recognized
medical complications in overweight children
and adolescents.
Gastrointestinal Disorders
The gastrointestinal (GI) system includes the
mouth, esophagus, stomach, small and large
intestines, and the anus. Often the liver is
also considered part of the GI system. Although it has always been obvious that the GI
system is involved in obesity because of its
role in food intake, it has not always been
clear that obesity can also affect the GI system. Recent research has verified that obesity can contribute to liver disease and gastroesophageal reflux disease, which causes
the stomach’s contents to flow back into the
esophagus.
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (or fat deposition in the liver) and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (or an inflammation of the liver related to fat deposits) are recognized as
complications of obesity in adults. As obesity
develops, fat can be deposited in the liver. In
their early stages, the fat deposits are thought
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to be relatively innocuous, but the deposits
lead to steatohepatitis, which can then
progress to fibrosis, cirrhosis, and even to
end-stage liver disease and liver failure, ultimately requiring a liver transplant.37 No one
knows why obesity-related nonalcoholic fatty
liver disease progresses more rapidly to its
more severe form in some people than in
others.
Researchers now recognize that this same
process of fat deposit and inflammation can
afflict children and adolescents. The prevalence of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is difficult to determine because it has no symptoms and requires a liver biopsy for
confirmation. Some studies have attempted
to estimate the prevalence, with one calculating that as many as 50 percent of obese children may have fat deposits in their livers
while some 3 percent of obese children have
the more advanced nonalcoholic steatohepatitis.38 Another study has found that nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is the most common form of liver disease in children and
adolescents.39 Epidemiologic studies have
shown that males and people of Hispanic ethnicity are at the highest risk for nonalcoholic
fatty liver disease.40 Most patients with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease also have insulin
resistance. The degree of insulin resistance is
associated with the severity of liver disease.41
In adults with diabetes, the prevalence of fat
deposits in the liver is high; approximately 50
percent have steatohepatitis and 19 percent
have cirrhosis.42 In adults, weight loss improves obesity-related fatty liver disease.43
This and other potential treatments of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease have not been extensively studied in young patients.
Gastroesophageal reflux is a relatively common problem in adults that can cause acute
symptoms of heartburn, long-term damage of
the esophageal lining, and ultimately
esophageal cancer. Several studies in adults
have linked obesity with increased symptoms
of gastroesophageal reflux. In a study of more
than 10,000 adults aged twenty to fifty-nine
in the United Kingdom, L. Murray and colleagues found that being above normal
weight increased the likelihood of heartburn
and acid regurgitation. Obese adults were
almost three times as likely to have such
symptoms as normal-weight individuals.44 M.
Nilsson and colleagues found a similar association, which was stronger among women, especially premenopausal women.45 V. Di
Francesco and colleagues reported that a vertical banded gastroplasty, an operation to decrease the stomach’s size to produce weight
loss, successfully reduced weight but not gastroesophageal acid reflux.46 The disorder has
not been studied extensively in obese children and adolescents, so researchers do not
know whether it is linked with overweight in
young people.
Skeletal Abnormalities
The skeletal system includes the bones and
joints. In obesity, skeletal abnormalities,
often referred to as orthopedic problems, can
affect the lower extremities. Hip problems
and abnormal growth of the tibia, or the main
bone of the lower leg below the knee, are
most common.
Some complications of obesity are physical—
the effect of excess body weight—rather than
metabolic, or the effect of increased adipose
tissue. One such complication in adults is osteoarthritis, where excess weight results in
wear and erosion of weight-bearing joints.
Orthopedic problems also afflict obese children. Tibia vara, or Blount disease, is a mechanical deficiency in the medial tibial
growth plate in adolescents that results in
bowing of the tibia, a bowed appearance of
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the lower leg, and an abnormal gait. Adolescent tibia vara is not common but most often
affects boys older than age nine who are
overweight.47
Another orthopedic problem related to overweight in young patients is slipped capital
femoral epiphysis, a disorder of the hip’s
growth plate that occurs around the age of
skeletal maturity. In this disorder the femur
(the bone in the upper leg and hip) is rotated
Although risk factors for
depression in adolescents are
not well known, one that has
been studied, particularly in
girls, is body dissatisfaction.
externally from under the growth plate, causing pain, making it impossible to walk, and
requiring surgical repair. The pathophysiology is not completely known, but it seems to
involve both mechanical and biological factors. The increased stress, which is mechanical, often results from excess weight. The
bone’s covering at this age, usually during the
growth spurt, is thin and unable to resist the
shearing forces. The abnormality is more
common in overweight males and in African
Americans. In about one-third to one-quarter
of afflicted children, both legs are affected.
Avoiding abnormal weight gain can prevent
such orthopedic problems.48
Psychosocial Issues
Psychosocial issues involve psychological
health and the ability to relate to family
members and peers. Such issues may have
many determinants, some of which are genetic and some, socioeconomic. Childhood
56
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
obesity is also linked with various psychosocial problems, the best studied of which is
depression.
Depression is a common mental health problem in adolescents.49 Adolescent-onset depression is often persistent and may be related to longer-term adverse mental health
and health outcomes.50 Although risk factors
for depression in adolescents are not well
known, one that has been studied, particularly in girls, is body dissatisfaction. In a longterm study, E. Stice and several colleagues
found that body dissatisfaction, dietary restraint, and symptoms of bulimia are linked
to depression.51 Weight issues often cause
body dissatisfaction, but they may affect girls
of various ethnic groups differently. J. Siegel,
for example, found that African American
girls have a more positive body image than
white, Hispanic, and Asian girls and that
weight affects body image and satisfaction
less in African American girls than in others.52 The sample size in this study was small,
however, so it is not conclusive.
Other studies have documented that obese
adolescents seeking treatment for their obesity have more depressive symptoms than
community-based obese or non-obese control groups.53 In general, researchers have
been unable to determine whether differences in depressive symptoms are based on
the severity of obesity. Published studies have
been based on relatively small samples, raising questions about the conclusions’ validity.
Nevertheless in a study by S. Erermis and
several colleagues, more than half of their
sample of obese adolescents had a clinically
important diagnosis, often involving major
depressive disorder.54
To discern the direction of the relationship
between obesity and depression is difficult.
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Depression itself is often associated with abnormal patterns of eating and physical activity that could result in future obesity; however, obesity may also result in psychosocial
problems that can produce depression. Evidence supports both hypotheses. On the one
hand, youths with depression are at greater
risk to develop an increased body mass
index.55 E. Goodman and R. C. Whitaker
found that increased BMI was associated
with increased depression at a one-year follow-up, with depression scores highest
among adolescents who had the greatest increase in body mass index.56 On the other
hand, in elementary school girls, higher BMI
was linked with increasing symptoms of depression.57 And overweight adolescents who
had been teased by peers or family members
were found to have increased suicidal
thoughts and attempts.58
mal-weight counterparts, and they were five
times more likely to have impaired quality of
life.61 In fact, the health-related quality of life
for obese children and adolescents was similar to that of children diagnosed with cancer.
And obese children and adolescents with obstructive sleep apnea reported even lower
quality of life than those without it did, perhaps because of their increased daytime
sleepiness. Ongoing research seeks to confirm the findings of Schwimmer’s team and to
refine the understanding of how, specifically,
obesity affects children’s quality of life.
It appears that obese children and adolescents have difficulties with peer relationships. Overweight children, for example,
tend to have few friends.59 Mapping childhood social networks demonstrates that normal-weight children have more social relationships with a central network of children,
while overweight children have more peripheral and isolated relationships in the network.
In a contrary finding, however, a study of
nine-year-old girls in the United Kingdom
did not demonstrate that overweight girls
were less popular and had fewer friends.60
Other Adverse Health Effects
Polycystic ovary syndrome consists of a constellation of abnormalities, including abnormal menses, such clinical manifestations of
androgen excess as acne and excessive hair
growth, elevated levels of circulatory androgens, and polycystic ovaries on ultrasound
evaluation.62 Among women with polycystic
ovary syndrome, a substantial share is overweight or obese.63 Although obesity is generally not considered the cause of the syndrome, it can exacerbate the associated
metabolic derangements, including insulin
resistance. The onset of polycystic ovary syndrome is often around the time of menarche,
but it can occur after puberty, particularly
after excess weight gain. The syndrome is one
of the most common female hormonal disorders, with a reported prevalence of 5 to 10
percent.64
An important psychosocial issue for overweight children and adolescents is quality of
life. Research on this issue has not been extensive, and existing studies have focused on
overall measures of quality of life rather than
obesity-specific measures. J. S. Schwimmer
and colleagues found that obese children and
adolescents reported significantly lower
health-related quality of life than their nor-
Women who suffer from polycystic ovary syndrome are at risk for infertility. Perhaps even
more important, they are at substantial risk
for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, as are those with metabolic syndrome.65
Obesity is present in at least 35 percent of
cases of polycystic ovary syndrome, with the
share sometimes as high as 75 percent.66
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proves insulin resistance and often improves
metabolic abnormalities.67
Another important complication of obesity is
pseudotumor cerebri, a condition in which
increased intracranial pressure often results
in headache and sometimes in vomiting or
blurred vision.68 Pseudotumor cerebri may
have multiple causes, including obesity,
though the precise relationship between obesity and increased intracranial pressure remains unknown. Pseudotumor cerebri may
be difficult to treat and can call for aggressive
weight-loss therapy, including bariatric surgery. The problem is uncommon in children
and adolescents but may be more common in
adults.
percent of national health spending.71 Spending on overweight and obesity together accounted for 9.1 percent of total annual U.S.
medical spending, a total rivaling even the
estimated medical costs attributable to smoking.72 Also important, Medicaid and Medicare cover approximately half of these increased costs, so that increases in obesity will
place further demands on public health care
spending.
Economic Issues
Of all the economic issues related to obesity,
perhaps the most important is the cost of its
associated health problems. In an analysis of
people younger than sixty-five, R. Sturm estimated that obese adults’ medical expenses are
36 percent higher than those of their nonobese peers.69 In preparing their estimate of
obesity’s medical costs, A. M. Wolf and G. A.
Colditz began with the relative risk of disease
for obese and non-obese adults for such conditions as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, hypertension, and some types of
cancer.70 Based on estimates of disease costs,
they projected spending on obesity to be
about 6 percent of national health spending in
1995. Because their estimate is somewhat
dated and because they used cost estimates
from the 1980s, it likely underestimates current obesity-related health spending.
Evaluating the costs of overweight and obesity in childhood and adolescents is difficult
because of a paucity of data. G. Wang and W.
H. Dietz used hospital discharge diagnoses
from 1997 through 1999 to estimate the cost
of obesity-related disorders in childhood.73
They used the most frequent principal diagnoses where obesity was listed as a secondary
diagnosis and then compared hospital diagnosis figures with those in 1979–81 for children aged six to seventeen. Not surprisingly,
they found increases in obesity-related diagnoses. Asthma associated with obesity increased from 6 to 8 percent; diabetes associated with obesity, from 1.4 to 2.4 percent.
They also found that time spent as an inpatient was longer for children with obesity and
estimated that obesity-related inpatient costs
were about 1.7 percent of total annual U.S.
hospital costs. Better understanding of childhood obesity’s costs will help the health care
system determine the best approach to preventing and treating childhood obesity. For
example, A. M. Tershakovec and several colleagues estimated that payers covered only
some 11 percent of costs in a pediatric
weight-management program.74
Using a nationally representative data set and
complex statistical analysis to evaluate U.S.
medical spending on overweight or obesity in
1998, E. A. Finkelstein and colleagues found
that spending on obesity accounted for 5.3
Other obesity-related economic issues may
begin in childhood and carry over into adulthood. Overweight people are stigmatized in
many cultures, including the United States,
where they are often characterized as lazy,
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sloppy, ugly, or stupid.75 The degree of negative stereotyping increases with age and appears to affect girls more than it does boys.76
The implications of negative stereotyping in
childhood carry into the experience of obese
individuals as they enter adulthood. Women
who are obese as adolescents become adults
with less education, lower earning power, a
higher likelihood of poverty, and a lower likelihood of marriage.77 (These issues are substantially less pronounced for overweight adolescent males.) Obese individuals have more
difficulty gaining admission to college.78
Obese adults may also experience discrimination in renting apartments and houses.79
The indirect economic costs of adult obesity—reductions in economic opportunity or
productivity—have been estimated at $23
billion a year in the United States.80 One
study of Swedish adult women estimated that
10 percent of all costs of sick leave and disability are obesity related.81 The indirect
costs of childhood obesity remain unknown.
But if childhood obesity is causing an increased burden of disease, those costs may
include time lost from work and day care
costs for parents as well as time lost from
school for the child.
Tracking Overweight and Obesity
into Adulthood
With overweight and obesity such serious
health risks for adults, an important question
is whether overweight in children and adolescents predicts overweight in adulthood—in
other words, whether children retain their
relative ranking related to their peers as they
age and become adults. That concept is
known as “tracking.”
Many studies have shown that overweight
children are more likely than their normal-
weight peers to become overweight adults. S.
S. Guo and several colleagues evaluated how
well BMI during childhood predicted overweight or obesity at age thirty-five in the Fels
Longitudinal Study.82 They found that for children and adolescents with BMI above the
95th percentile at any age during childhood,
the probability of being obese at age thirty-five
years ranged from 15 to 99 percent. The probability rises the older a child is when he or she
becomes obese. Obese children, in other
The link between parental
overweight and childhood
obesity is likely to be both
genetic and environmental,
and untangling the two is
often difficult.
words, are more likely to become obese adults
the older they are obese as children.
Robert C. Whitaker and several colleagues
investigated the relationship between obesity
at various times during childhood and obesity
in young adults aged twenty-one to twentynine.83 Obesity in very young children (aged
one to two) was not associated with adult
obesity, but for obese children older than two
and for obese adolescents, the odds of becoming an obese adult were higher. Those
odds increased the higher their BMI was,
and the older they were when they became
obese as children. Finally, having obese parents made it more likely that an obese child
would continue to be obese into adulthood.
The probability that an obese child aged
three to five would remain obese as a young
adult was 24 percent if neither parent was
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obese at the time, but it rose to 62 percent if
one parent was obese. The link between
parental overweight and childhood obesity is
likely to be both genetic and environmental,
and untangling the two is often difficult. Researchers do not know which genes cause
obesity to develop in children, though it is
likely that many genes act together. And parents clearly create important aspects of the
child’s environment, including which foods
are available and what opportunities the child
has for physical activity or sedentary time. All
of these factors may contribute to the tracking that makes it more likely that an obese
child will become an obese adult.
Illness and Death Related to
Obesity in Adults
Obesity in adulthood has long been associated with both increased illness and a greater
chance of death. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company’s relative weight measure
has been used for more than seventy-five
years to assess mortality risks.84 The most
common adverse effects of adulthood obesity
are cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Endometrial, colon, kidney, and postmenopausal breast cancer have also been associated with obesity. The Framingham
Heart Study’s consistent finding of a link between obesity and cardiovascular disease led
the American Heart Association to recognize
the emergence of obesity as one of the most
important risk factors for heart disease and
stroke in both men and women.85 In the
Nurses’ Health Study, the heaviest subjects
had fatal and nonfatal heart attacks three
times more frequently than did the lightest
subjects.86 In addition to overweight and
obesity in general, studies of adults have focused on the distribution of fat. For example
in the Honolulu Heart Study, the risk of developing coronary artery disease was higher
in men whose fat was concentrated around
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THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
their abdomens, even after controlling for
other risk factors.87 The Framingham Heart
Study found the same relationship for
women.88
In adults obesity has been linked with cholesterol abnormalities, in particular lower HDL
cholesterol (note that HDL is the “good”
cholesterol, and higher values are better), elevation of triglycerides (fats), and high blood
pressure.89 In a review of population-based
epidemiologic studies, B. N. Chiang and several colleagues reported increases in both
systolic and diastolic blood pressure related
to increasing weight.90 Although these relationships between obesity and illness and
death have long been well known in adults,
relatively fewer data exist on the adverse
health consequences of obesity in children
and adolescents. Understanding these relationships in young people has become more
urgent as the prevalence of overweight and
obesity has increased in their age group.91
The cumulative effects of obesity-related diseases may be to cut short the lifespan of
those affected. The question of how many
people die because of obesity has been controversial. In 2004, A. H. Mokdad, of the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
(CDC), published a paper with several of his
colleagues in the Journal of the American
Medical Association that set the annual death
toll at 400,000, an estimate that rivaled the
toll of cigarette smoking.92 Subsequent discussion led Mokdad’s team to revise their estimate downward to 365,000.93 A still later
publication in the same journal used more recent data sets and lowered the estimated annual obesity-related death toll much further,
to 112,000.94 Part of the difficulty in estimating the obesity death toll is calculating a precise and valid estimate of obesity-related
mortality. Each approach includes assump-
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tions that are subject to question. For example, the analyses differed both in how they
defined the normal weight used in the comparative calculations and in how they incorporated age into the analysis. That the analysis including more recent data sets found a
lower overall obesity-related mortality is of
interest. It seems counterintuitive because of
obesity’s increasing prevalence in recent
years. But all heart disease risk factors except
diabetes appear less likely to be present in
overweight individuals in the more recent
data, perhaps because of the medical profession’s improved ability to treat these risk factors and heart disease. Unfortunately, the
controversy over precisely what the death toll
is has overshadowed the fact that both studies find obesity to be a major health threat.
The focus on the death rate has also diverted
attention from the illness and disability related to obesity.
A recent article in the New England Journal
of Medicine raised the alarming possibility
that the increasing prevalence of severe obesity in children may reverse the modern era’s
steady increase in life expectancy, with the
youth of today on average living less healthy
and ultimately shorter lives than their parents.95 That claim too has been the subject of
criticism. In an accompanying editorial in the
same journal, S. H. Preston urged caution in
accepting the claim, because many other factors continue to increase life expectancy in
this and coming generations of children.96
Methodological issues have also arisen regarding the calculations used to predict future longevity. Nevertheless, these data raise
the possibility that the current generation of
children could suffer greater illness or experience a shorter lifespan than that of their
parents—the first such reversal in lifespan in
modern history. That possibility makes childhood obesity an issue of utmost public health
concern.
With the increasing prevalence of overweight
and obesity in children and adolescents and
the important tracking of overweight from
childhood to adulthood, this generation of
children could well have an even higher
prevalence of obesity and adverse health consequences in adulthood than do their parents. Preventing childhood obesity is thus of
urgent importance.
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Notes
1. A. V. Chobanian and others, “The Seventh Report of the Joint National Committee on Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Pressure: The JNC 7 Report,” Journal of the American
Medical Association 289 (2003): 2560–72.
2. B. Falkner and S. R. Daniels, “Summary of the Fourth Report on the Diagnosis, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Pressure in Children and Adolescents,” Hypertension 44 (2004): 387–88.
3. B. Rosner and others, “Blood Pressure Differences between Blacks and Whites in Relation to Body Size
among U.S. Children and Adolescents,” American Journal of Epidemiology 151 (2000): 1007–19.
4. P. Muntner and others, “Trends in Blood Pressure among Children and Adolescents,” Journal of the American Medical Association 291 (2004): 2107–13.
5. Ibid.
6. R. M. Lauer and W. R. Clarke, “Childhood Risk Factors for High Adult Blood Pressure: The Muscatine
Study,” Pediatrics 84 (1989): 633–41.
7. G. de Simone and others, “Effect of Growth on Variability of Left Ventricular Mass: Assessment of Allometric Signals in Adults and Children and Their Capacity to Predict Cardiovascular Risk,” Journal of American College of Cardiology 25 (1995): 1056–62.
8. M. Yoshinaga and others, “Effect of Total Adipose Weight and Systemic Hypertension on Left Ventricular
Mass in Children,” American Journal of Cardiology 76 (1995): 785–87.
9. S. R. Daniels and others, “Effect of Lean Body Mass, Fat Mass, Blood Pressure, and Sexual Maturation on
Left Ventricular Mass in Children and Adolescents: Statistical, Biological, and Clinical Significance,” Circulation 92 (1995): 3249–54.
10. Systolic blood pressure is the pressure that occurs each time the heart pushes blood into the vessels; diastolic pressure is pressure that occurs when the heart rests.
11. S. R. Daniels and others, “Left Ventricular Geometry and Severe Left Ventricular Hypertrophy in Children
and Adolescents with Essential Hypertension,” Circulation 97 (1998): 1907–11.
12. H. C. McGill Jr. and others, “Effects of Nonlipid Risk Factors on Atherosclerosis in Youth with a Favorable
Lipoprotein Profile,” Circulation 103 (2001): 1546–50; G. S. Berenson and others, “Association between
Multiple Cardiovascular Risk Factors and Atherosclerosis in Children and Young Adults: The Bogalusa
Heart Study,” New England Journal of Medicine 338 (1998): 1650–56.
13. Berenson and others, “Association between Multiple Cardiovascular Risk Factors and Atherosclerosis” (see
note 12).
14. L. T. Mahoney and others, “Coronary Risk Factors Measured in Childhood and Young Adult Life Are Associated with Coronary Artery Calcification in Young Adults: The Muscatine Study,” Journal of the American College of Cardiology 27 (1996): 277–84.
15. S. Klein and others, “Clinical Implications of Obesity with Specific Focus on Cardiovascular Disease: A
Statement for Professionals from the American Heart Association Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity,
and Metabolism,” Circulation 110 (2004): 2952–67.
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16. J. Steinberger and others, “Adiposity in Childhood Predicts Obesity and Insulin Resistance in Young Adulthood,” Journal of Pediatrics 138 (2001): 469–73.
17. “Third Report of the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) Expert Panel on Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol in Adults (Adult Treatment Panel III), Final Report,” Circulation 106 (2002): 3143–421.
18. S. M. Grundy and others, “Diagnosis and Management of the Metabolic Syndrome: An American Heart
Association/National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Scientific Statement,” Circulation 112 (2005):
2735–52; A. J. Hanley and others, “Metabolic and Inflammation Variable Clusters and Prediction of Type 2
Diabetes: Factor Analysis Using Directly Measured Insulin Sensitivity,” Diabetes 53 (2004): 1773–81.
19. S. Cook and others, “Prevalence of a Metabolic Syndrome Phenotype in Adolescents: Findings from the
Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1988–1994,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 157 (2003): 821–27.
20. R. Weiss and others, “Obesity and the Metabolic Syndrome in Children and Adolescents,” New England
Journal of Medicine 350 (2004): 2362–74.
21. Berenson and others, “Association between Multiple Cardiovascular Risk Factors and Atherosclerosis” (see
note 12).
22. Atherogenic dyslipidemia includes an aggregation of lipid and lipoprotein abnormalities including an elevation of triglycerides and apolipoprotein B, a reduced level of HDL-cholesterol (the good cholesterol), and
increased small LDL particles (a form of the bad cholesterol that predisposes to hardening of the arteries).
23. “Third Report of the National Cholesterol Education Program” (see note 17).
24. O. Pinhas-Hamiel, “Increased Incidence of Non-Insulin-Dependent Diabetes Mellitus among Adolescents,” Journal of Pediatrics 128 (1996): 608–15.
25. Ibid.
26. S. R. Srinivasan and others, “Adolescent Overweight Is Associated with Adult Overweight and Related
Multiple Cardiovascular Risk Factors: The Bogalusa Heart Study,” Metabolism 45 (1996): 235–40.
27. American Diabetes Association, “Type 2 Diabetes in Children and Adolescents,” Diabetes Care 23 (2000):
381–89.
28. Ibid.
29. E. Luder, T. A. Melnik, and M. DiMaio, “Association of Being Overweight with Greater Asthma Symptoms
in Inner-City Black and Hispanic Children,” Journal of Pediatrics 132 (1998): 699–703.
30. M. A. Rodriguez and others, “Identification of Population Subgroups of Children and Adolescents with
High Asthma Prevalence: Findings from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey,”
Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 156 (2002): 269–75.
31. B. Stenius-Aarniala and others, “Immediate and Long-Term Effects of Weight Reduction in Obese People
with Asthma: Randomised Controlled Study,” British Medical Journal 320 (2000): 827–32.
32. S. K. Rhodes and others, “Neurocognitive Deficits in Morbidly Obese Children with Obstructive Sleep
Apnea,” Journal of Pediatrics 127 (1995): 741–44.
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33. G. B. Mallory Jr., D. H. Fiser, and R. Jackson, “Sleep-Associated Breathing Disorders in Morbidly Obese
Children and Adolescents,” Journal of Pediatrics 115 (1989): 892–97.
34. A. Orea-Tejeda and others, “SPECT Myocardial Perfusion Imaging during Periods of Obstructive Sleep
Apnea in Morbidly Obese Patients without Known Heart Disease,” Rev Invest Clin. 55 (2003): 18–25.
35. R. S. Amin and others, “Twenty-Four-Hour Ambulatory Blood Pressure in Children with Sleep-Disordered
Breathing,” American Journal of Respiratory Critical Care Medicine 169 (2004): 950–56; R. S. Amin and
others, “Left Ventricular Hypertrophy and Abnormal Ventricular Geometry in Children and Adolescents
with Obstructive Sleep Apnea,” American Journal of Respiratory Critical Care Medicine 165 (2002):
1395–99; R. S. Amin and others, “Left Ventricular Function in Children with Sleep-Disordered Breathing,” American Journal of Cardiology 95 (2005): 801–04.
36. Amin and others, “Left Ventricular Function” (see note 35); R. D. Ross and others, “Sleep ApneaAssociated Hypertension and Reversible Left Ventricular Hypertrophy,” Journal of Pediatrics 111 (1987):
253–55.
37. B. A. Neuschwander-Tetri and S. H. Caldwell, “Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis: Summary of an AASLD Single Topic Conference,” Hepatology 37 (2003): 1202–19.
38. A. Kinugasa and others, “Fatty Liver and Its Fibrous Changes Found in Simple Obesity of Children,” Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition 3 (1984): 408–14.
39. J. E. Lavine and J. B. Schwimmer, “Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease in the Pediatric Population,” Clinical
Liver Disease 8 (2004): viii–ix, 549–58.
40. J. B. Schwimmer and others, “Obesity, Insulin Resistance, and Other Clinicopathological Correlates of Pediatric Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease,” Journal of Pediatrics 142 (2003): 500–05.
41. Ibid.
42. J. F. Silverman, W. J. Pories, and J. F. Caro, “Liver Pathology in Diabetes Mellitus and Morbid Obesity:
Clinical, Pathological, and Biochemical Considerations,” Pathology Annual 24, pt. 1 (1989): 275–302.
43. M. L. Frelut and others, “Uneven Occurrence of Fatty Liver in Morbidly Obese Children: Impact of
Weight Loss,” International Journal of Obesity 22 (1995): 43.
44. L. Murray and others, “Relationship between Body Mass and Gastro-Esophageal Reflux Symptoms: The
Bristol Helicobacter Project,” International Journal of Epidemiology 32 (2003): 645–50.
45. M. Nilsson and others, “Obesity and Estrogen as Risk Factors for Gastroesophageal Reflux Symptoms,”
Journal of the American Medical Association 290 (2003): 66–72.
46. V. Di Francesco and others, “Obesity and Gastro-Esophageal Acid Reflux: Physiopathological Mechanisms
and Role of Gastric Bariatric Surgery,” Obesity Surgery 14 (2004): 1095–102.
47. T. F. Kling Jr. and R. N. Hensinger, “Angular and Torsional Deformities of the Lower Limbs in Children,”
Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research (1983): 136–47.
48. R. T. Loder and others, “Acute Slipped Capital Femoral Epiphysis: The Importance of Physeal Stability,”
Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery 75 (1993): 1134–40.
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49. R. G. Wight and others, “A Multilevel Analysis of Ethnic Variation in Depressive Symptoms among Adolescents in the United States,” Social Science and Medicine 60 (2005): 2073–84.
50. B. Brimaher, C. Arbelaez, and D. Brent, “Course and Outcome of Child and Adolescent Major Depressive
Disorder,” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 11 (2002): x, 619–37.
51. E. Stice and others, “Body Image and Eating Disturbances Predict Onset of Depression among Female
Adolescents: A Longitudinal Study,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 109 (2000): 438–44.
52. J. Siegel, “Body Image Change and Adolescent Depressive Symptoms,” Journal of Adolescent Research 17
(2002): 27–41.
53. B. Britz and others, “Rates of Psychiatric Disorders in a Clinical Study Group of Adolescents with Extreme
Obesity and in Obese Adolescents Ascertained via a Population-Based Study,” International Journal of
Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders 24 (2000): 1707–14; S. Erermis and others, “Is Obesity a Risk
Factor for Psychopathology among Adolescents?” Pediatrics International 46 (2004): 296–301.
54. Ibid.
55. D. S. Pine and others, “The Association between Childhood Depression and Adulthood Body Mass Index,”
Pediatrics 107 (2001): 1049–56.
56. E. Goodman and R. C. Whitaker, “A Prospective Study of the Role of Depression in the Development and
Persistence of Adolescent Obesity,” Pediatrics 110 (2002): 497–504.
57. S. J. Erickson and others, “Are Overweight Children Unhappy? Body Mass Index, Depressive Symptoms,
and Overweight Concerns in Elementary School Children,” Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 154 (2000): 931–35.
58. M. E. Eisenberg, D. Neumark-Sztainer, and M. Story, “Associations of Weight-Based Teasing and Emotional Well-Being among Adolescents,” Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 157 (2003):
733–38.
59. R. S. Strauss and H. A. Pollack, “Social Marginalization of Overweight Children,” Archives of Pediatrics
and Adolescent Medicine 157 (2003): 746–52.
60. R. G. Phillips and J. J. Hill, “Fat, Plain, but Not Friendless: Self-Esteem and Peer Acceptance of Obese Preadolescent Girls,” International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders 22 (1998): 287–93.
61. J. S. Schwimmer, T. M. Burwinkle, and J. W. Varni, “Health-Related Quality of Life of Severely Obese
Children and Adolescents,” Journal of the American Medical Association 289 (2003): 1813–19.
62. “Revised 2003 Consensus on Diagnostic Criteria and Long-Term Health Risks Related to Polycystic Ovary
Syndrome,” Fertility and Sterility 81 (2004): 19–25.
63. D. A. Ehrmann and others, “Prevalence of Impaired Glucose Tolerance and Diabetes in Women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome,” Diabetes Care 22 (1999): 141–46.
64. M. Asuncion and others, “A Prospective Study of the Prevalence of the Polycystic Ovary Syndrome in Unselected Caucasian Women from Spain,” Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism 85 (2000):
2434–38.
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65. C. J. Glueck and others, “Incidence and Treatment of Metabolic Syndrome in Newly Referred Women
with Confirmed Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome,” Metabolism 52 (2003): 908–15.
66. R. Azziz and others, “Troglitazone Improves Ovulation and Hirsutism in the Polycystic Ovary Syndrome: A
Multicenter, Double Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial,” Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism
86 (2001): 1626–32.
67. D. A. Ehrmann, “Polycystic Ovary Syndrome,” New England Journal of Medicine 352 (2005): 1223–36.
68. S. D. Silberstein and J. Marcelis, “Headache Associated with Changes in Intracranial Pressure,” Headache
32 (1992): 84–94.
69. R. Sturm, “The Effects of Obesity, Smoking, and Drinking on Medical Problems and Costs: Obesity Outranks Both Smoking and Drinking in Its Deleterious Effects on Health and Health Costs,” Health Affairs
(Millwood) 21 (2002): 245–53.
70. A. M. Wolf and G. A. Colditz, “Current Estimates of the Economic Cost of Obesity in the United States,”
Obesity Research 6 (1998): 97–106.
71. E. A. Finkelstein, I. C. Fiebelkorn, and G. Wang, “National Medical Spending Attributable to Overweight
and Obesity: How Much, and Who’s Paying?” Health Affairs (Millwood) Suppl. Web Exclusive (2003): W3219-26. (http://content.healthaffairs.org/cgi/content/full/hlthaff.w3.219v1/DC1 [December 8, 2005]).
72. K. E. Warner, T. A. Hodgson, and C. E. Carroll, “Medical Costs of Smoking in the United States: Estimates, Their Validity, and Their Implications,” Tobacco Control 8 (1999): 290–300.
73. G. Wang and W. H. Dietz, “Economic Burden of Obesity in Youths Aged 6 to 17 Years: 1979–1999,” Pediatrics 109 (2002): e81.
74. A. M. Tershakovec and others, “Insurance Reimbursement for the Treatment of Obesity in Children,”
Journal of Pediatrics 134 (1999): 573–78.
75. J. R. Staffieri, “A Study of Social Stereotype of Body Image in Children,” Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology 7 (1967): 101–04.
76. J. A. Brylinsky and J. C. Moore, “The Identification of Body Build Stereotype in Young Children,” Journal
of Research in Personality 8 (1994): 170–181; N. H. Falkner and others, “Social, Educational, and Psychological Correlates of Weight Status in Adolescents,” Obesity Research 9 (2001): 32–42.
77. S. L. Gortmaker and others, “Social and Economic Consequences of Overweight in Adolescence and
Young Adulthood,” New England Journal of Medicine 329 (1993): 1008–12.
78. H. Canning and J. Mayer, “Obesity: Its Possible Effect on College Acceptance,” New England Journal of
Medicine 275 (1966): 1172–74.
79. L. Karris, “Prejudice against Obese Renters,” Journal of Social Psychology 101 (1977): 159–60.
80. “Obesity: Preventing and Managing the Global Epidemic—Report of a WHO Consultation,” World Health
Organization Technical Report Series 894 (2000): 1–253.
81. K. Narbro and others, “Economic Consequences of Sick Leave and Early Retirement in Obese Swedish
Women,” International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders 20 (1996): 895–903.
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82. S. S. Guo and others, “Predicting Overweight and Obesity in Adulthood from Body Mass Index Values in
Childhood and Adolescence,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 76 (2002): 653–58.
83. Robert C. Whitaker and others, “Predicting Obesity in Young Adulthood from Childhood and Parental
Obesity,” New England Journal of Medicine 337 (1997): 869–73.
84. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, “New Weight Standards for Men and Women” Statistical Bulletin
40 (1959): 1–4. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company tables also take height into account.
85. H. B. Hubert and others, “Obesity as an Independent Risk Factor for Cardiovascular Disease: A 26-Year
Follow-up of Participants in the Framingham Heart Study,” Circulation 67 (1983): 968–77; R. H. Eckel
and R. M. Krauss, “American Heart Association Call to Action: Obesity as a Major Risk Factor for Coronary Heart Disease—AHA Nutrition Committee,” Circulation 97 (1998): 2099–100.
86. J. E. Manson and others, “A Prospective Study of Obesity and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in Women,”
New England Journal of Medicine 322 (1990): 882–89.
87. R. P. Donahue and R. D. Abbott, “Central Obesity and Coronary Heart Disease in Men,” Lancet 2 (1987):
1215.
88. W. B. Kannel, “Metabolic Risk Factors for Coronary Heart Disease in Women: Perspective from the Framingham Study,” American Heart Journal 114 (1987): 413–19.
89. M. A. Berns, J. H. de Vries, and M. B. Katan, “Increase in Body Fatness as a Major Determinant of
Changes in Serum Total Cholesterol and High-Density Lipoprotein Cholesterol in Young Men over a 10Year Period,” American Journal of Epidemiology 130 (1989): 1109–22.
90. B. N. Chiang, L. V. Perlman, and F. H. Epstein, “Overweight and Hypertension: A Review,” Circulation 39
(1969): 403–21.
91. A. A. Hedley and others, “Prevalence of Overweight and Obesity among U.S. Children, Adolescents, and
Adults, 1999–2002,” Journal of the American Medical Association 291 (2004): 2847–50.
92. A. H. Mokdad and others, “Actual Causes of Death in the United States, 2000,” Journal of the American
Medical Association 291 (2004): 1238–45.
93. A. H. Mokdad, “Correction: Actual Causes of Death in the United States, 2000,” Journal of the American
Medical Association 293 (2005): 293–94.
94. K. M. Flegal and others, “Excess Deaths Associated with Underweight, Overweight, and Obesity,” Journal
of the American Medical Association 293 (2005): 1861–67.
95. S. J. Olshansky and others, “A Potential Decline in Life Expectancy in the United States in the 21st Century,” New England Journal of Medicine 352 (2005): 1135–37.
96. S. H. Preston, “Deadweight? The Influence of Obesity on Longevity,” New England Journal of Medicine
352 (2005): 1135-37.
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Markets and Childhood Obesity Policy
John Cawley
Summary
In examining the childhood obesity epidemic from the perspective of economics, John Cawley
looks at both possible causes and possible policy solutions that work through markets. The operation of markets, says Cawley, has contributed to the recent increase in childhood overweight
in three main ways. First, the real price of food fell. In particular, energy-dense foods, such as
those containing fats and sugars, became relatively cheaper than less energy-dense foods, such
as fresh fruits and vegetables. Second, rising wages increased the “opportunity costs” of food
preparation for college graduates, encouraging them to spend less time preparing meals. Third,
technological changes created incentives to use prepackaged food rather than to prepare foods.
Several economic rationales justify government intervention in markets to address these problems. First, because free markets generally under-provide information, the government may intervene to provide consumers with nutrition information they need. Second, because society
bears the soaring costs of obesity, the government may intervene to lower the costs to taxpayers. Third, because children are not what economists call “rational consumers”—they cannot
evaluate information critically and weigh the future consequences of their actions—the government may step in to help them make better choices.
The government can easily disseminate information to consumers directly, but formulating
policies to address the other two rationales is more difficult. In the absence of ideal policies to
combat obesity, the government must turn to “second-best” policies. For example, it could protect children from advertisements for “junk food.” It could implement taxes and subsidies that
discourage the consumption of unhealthful foods or encourage physical activity. It could require schools to remove vending machines for soda and candy.
From the economic perspective, policymakers should evaluate these options on the basis of
cost-effectiveness studies. Researchers, however, have as yet undertaken few such studies of
obesity-related policy options. Such analyses, once available, will help policymakers achieve the
greatest benefit from a fixed budget.
www.futureofchildren.org
John Cawley is an associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University. The author thanks Elizabeth Donahue, J. A.
Grisso, Barrett Kirwan, Philip Levine, Laura Leviton, Alan Mathios, Tracy Orleans, Christina Paxson, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
working group on childhood obesity, and participants at the Future of Children conference on Childhood Obesity for their helpful comments
and suggestions.
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S
ince the early 1970s, the prevalence of overweight has more than
doubled among children aged two
to five, almost quadrupled for children aged six to eleven, and more
than doubled among adolescents aged twelve
to nineteen.1 During 1999–2000, the prevalence of overweight was 11.6 percent among
toddlers aged six months to twenty-three
months, 10.4 percent among children aged
two to five years, 15.3 percent among children aged six to eleven, and 15.5 percent
among adolescents. The health risks associated with childhood obesity, including
asthma, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and depression, have led
medical authorities to declare the rise in
childhood obesity a public health crisis.2
The epidemic of childhood obesity has many
causes—cultural, economic, and genetic.3 In
this article, I focus on the causes and possible
policy solutions that work through markets. I
use economics to weigh and assess the
evidence.4
How Markets May Have
Contributed to the Rise in
Childhood Overweight
Several strands of research investigate how
markets may contribute to increased calorie
consumption, sedentary lifestyles, or overweight and how changes in those markets may
have contributed to the recent rise in childhood overweight. The problem for researchers is not figuring out what could have
caused the rise in childhood obesity; the problem is that too many things could have caused
it. James Hill and several colleagues calculate
that the rise in obesity in the United States
could have been caused by a daily surplus of
just 15 calories for the median person, with 90
percent of the population increasing their intake by 50 or fewer calories a day.5 To put this
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in perspective, the rise in weight for the median person could have been caused by consuming an extra three tablespoons of skim
milk or walking 120 fewer yards each day. It
will likely be impossible to determine which
changes are responsible for such a small increase in daily calorie surplus, but I will consider several possible contributors.
Changes in the Cost of Food
and Food Preparation
The most obvious contributor to the increasing calorie surplus is falling food prices. Between January 1980 and January 2005, the
real price of food fell 13 percent.6 One study
attributes 40 percent of the recent rise in
weight to lower food prices.7
Changes in the “opportunity cost” of time
spent cooking may also have affected eating
patterns. Strictly speaking, the opportunity
cost of a person’s time is the value of that time
devoted to the next best available alternative,
but in practice it is often measured by the
wage rate. All else being equal, if someone’s
wage rate rises, he or she will likely spend less
time cooking and will instead use prepackaged foods that require less preparation time
or will eat food prepared by others, such as
restaurant meals or “takeout.” It is also possible that he or she would simply consume less
food as a result of spending less time cooking.
How much wages have changed over the past
twenty-five to thirty years varies by the wage
earners’ educational attainment. Real wages
for high school dropouts have fallen, those
for high school graduates have remained
roughly constant, and those for college graduates have risen considerably.8 These wage
dynamics imply that the time cost of cooking
rose for college graduates and fell for high
school dropouts. To my knowledge, data on
time spent cooking have not been sorted by
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education, but for the U.S. population as a
whole, the number of minutes spent each day
preparing meals fell from forty-four in 1965
to thirty-two in 1999.9
While changing wage rates affected the opportunity cost of time spent cooking, technological change may have reduced the time required to prepare some foods. David Cutler,
Edward Glaeser, and Jesse Shapiro argue
that innovations in food processing, preservation, and packaging made it possible for food
to be mass prepared far from the place of
consumption and to be consumed with less
time cost. These innovations contributed to a
shift away from home-cooked meals toward
processed food, thus increasing obesity. In
support of their argument, the researchers
show that consumption of mass-produced
foods increased the most, that people most
able to take advantage of these technological
changes had the greatest increases in weight,
and that obesity is greatest in countries
where people have the greatest access to
processed food.10
Changes in the share of women who work
also affected time spent cooking. Over the
past three decades, the labor force participation rate of women with children younger
than age eighteen rose from 47 to 72 percent,
with the largest increase among mothers with
children younger than age three.11 The increased work time may have resulted in the
increased use of prepackaged foods or of
food consumed away from home. One study
calculates that during the past three decades
the increase in mothers’ average weekly
hours at work explains 12 to 35 percent of the
increase in childhood obesity in families of
high socioeconomic status.12
During this same period Congress reformed
the nation’s welfare system, in the process
giving poor single mothers an economic incentive to spend less time cooking. With
some exceptions, the 1996 welfare reform
law required single mothers to work in the
labor force to receive cash welfare benefits.13
Thus even though falling real wages lowered
the opportunity cost of cooking for high
school dropouts, poor single mothers had
For the U.S. population
as a whole, the number of
minutes spent each day
preparing meals fell from
forty-four in 1965 to
thirty-two in 1999.
good reason to spend more time in the labor
force and less time in household production.
To better establish the link among changing
costs of time, time spent cooking, eating out,
and childhood obesity, researchers must answer several questions. First, they must find
out how different groups of people responded to the changing costs of time. For
example, do college graduates and welfareeligible women spend less time cooking and
high school dropouts spend more time cooking? Second, they must determine whether
changes in cooking time led college graduates and welfare-eligible women to use more
prepackaged foods or restaurant food and led
high school dropouts to use less. And, third,
they must prove the link between the consumption of prepackaged and restaurant
foods and childhood obesity.
Another possible contributor to obesity is the
price of energy-dense foods, such as those
containing fats and sugars, relative to that of
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less energy-dense foods, such as fresh fruits
and vegetables. Adam Drewnowski and S. E.
Specter calculate that, on a per-calorie basis,
energy-dense foods are cheap whereas foods
low in energy density are much more expensive.14 However, a Department of Agriculture (USDA) study suggests that less energydense foods can still be quite cheap in
Between 1977 and 1995, the
share of total calories
consumed away from home
rose from 18 to 34 percent,
the share of meals consumed
away from home rose from
16 to 29 percent, and the
total share of food dollars
spent away from home rose
from 26 to 39 percent.
dense foods have become considerably
cheaper, relative to less energy-dense foods,
in the past fifteen years.16
Changes in Where Americans
Eat Their Meals
Perhaps because of the increasing opportunity cost of time for college graduates or the
movement of women into the labor force,
Americans are eating more meals away from
home today than they did thirty years ago.
Between 1977 and 1995, the share of total
calories consumed away from home rose
from 18 to 34 percent, the share of meals
consumed away from home rose from 16 to
29 percent, and the total share of food dollars
spent away from home rose from 26 to 39
percent.17 From 1994 through 1996, children
consumed 32 percent of all their calories
away from home: 10 percent in fast-food
restaurants, 9 percent in schools, 4 percent in
restaurants, and 9 percent from all other
sources, such as vending machines and other
people’s houses.18
absolute terms; it calculates that a person can
satisfy the USDA’s recommendation of three
daily servings of fruit and four servings of
vegetables for just 64 cents a day. The study
also concludes that 63 percent of fruits and
57 percent of vegetables were cheapest in
their fresh form.15
The move toward food away from home came
just as this food itself (not the time costs of
preparing it) was becoming more expensive
relative to food at home. Between January
1980 and January 2005, the real price of food
at home fell 16.2 percent while the real price
of food away from home fell only 5.1 percent.19 Eating out became more common even
as it was becoming relatively more expensive.
Further research must determine whether
the relative price of energy-dense foods has
fallen in the past several decades. A quick
comparison of the various consumer price indexes indicates that between January 1989
and January 2005, the real price of fruits and
vegetables rose 74.6 percent while that of fats
and oils fell 26.5 percent and that of sugars
and sweets fell 33.1 percent. Thus energy-
The distinction between food at home and
food away from home is important because
consumers typically have less information
about the calorie content of foods they eat
away from home. Relative to food at home,
food away from home has on average lower
fiber and calcium density, similar sodium
density, and higher cholesterol density.20 Nutritional trends both for food at home and for
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food away from home are promising: in both,
the densities of fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol have declined, and the density of fiber
has increased slightly, though away-fromhome foods have improved less than food at
home.21 Further research must explore
whether the move toward consuming more
food away from home and eating less at home
has caused an increase in childhood obesity.
Changes in Portion Sizes
Portion sizes of certain foods have increased
since the 1970s. One study of portion sizes
looks at package labels and manufacturers’
information and concludes that the portion
sizes of “virtually all” the packaged foods and
beverages it examines have increased during
the past three decades.22 Such a finding is
important because several experiments have
documented that when people are served
larger portions, they consume more calories.23 The portion size effect is first detectable in children five years old.24
The increase in portion sizes, combined with
people’s tendency to eat more when served
larger portions, implies that the amount of
food consumed at one sitting has increased.
Smiciklas-Wright and her colleagues use the
Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals to study the quantities consumed at
one sitting and find significant increases for
about a third of the 107 foods they examine.
The study does not specify whether these
items were ones packed in larger portions by
manufacturers. They find significant decreases
in amounts consumed for six other foods.25
One limit of the research on portion sizes and
calorie intake is that the increases in portion
sizes in experiments do not match the
increased portion sizes in the market. For
example, some studies experimentally increased portions of macaroni and cheese, but
the Smiciklas-Wright team found that the
portions of macaroni and cheese that people
reported consuming fell 17 percent between
1989–91 and 1994–96.
Whether people eat more when they are notified of the increase in portion size is unclear. In the market, some food manufacturers take pains to emphasize the increased size
of their products—for example, the Big
Gulp, Monster Thickburger, and “supersized” meals. Moreover, the increases in calorie consumption documented in these experiments (30 to 50 percent) are far larger than
the small increase in daily calorie surplus that
caused the rise in obesity. Because these experiments typically last no longer than a few
meals or days, it is also unclear whether in
the longer run people adapt to the larger portion sizes and return to consuming their normal amount. For example, suppose every day
were Thanksgiving. You might eat large portions the first day, but you probably would
not continue to eat “Thanksgiving-sized”
meals every day. At some point you might return to your previous level of caloric consumption. Longer-term research is needed to
determine the long-run effect of portion size,
as well as what the effect is when consumers
are notified of the larger portions.
Changes in Farm Policies
Agriculture policy may contribute to obesity
by promoting lower prices and greater production of certain commodities. From 1933 to
1995, price supports kept the prices of wheat,
corn, soybeans, oats, and other commodities
above their free-market prices in the United
States; the government purchased excess supplies to bolster prices. The 1995 Farm Bill,
however, reformed the system. Rather than
subsidizing farmers by keeping prices artificially high, the government now gives farmers
a production subsidy, or a payment based on
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their historic production. In other words, the
new law completely decoupled subsidies to
farmers from production, and consumers
switched from paying above-market to belowmarket prices for agricultural commodities.26
Trade policies still keep some commodities’
prices high. A system of quotas and tariffs,
for example, keeps the U.S. price of sugar
above the world price.27 Agriculture policy
has lowered the prices of other sweeteners,
A system of quotas and tariffs
keeps the U.S. price of sugar
above the world price, while
agriculture policy has lowered
the prices of other sweeteners.
however. In particular, farm policy has been
criticized for subsidizing the production of
corn and, thereby, of high-fructose corn
syrup, which is now common in soft drinks,
fruit juices, jelly, and other foods.28
The USDA estimates that production subsidies increased the land under cultivation by 4
million acres and lowered the price of wheat
by seven cents a bushel, of corn by nine cents
a bushel, and of soybeans by forty-nine cents
a bushel.29 A second study figures that direct
payments to farmers boost agricultural output 4.39 percent.30 And a third calculates that
policy changes in the 1995 Farm Bill and
thereafter increased production of grains and
soybeans 4 percent and lowered prices 5 to 8
percent.31 Of course, consumers do not buy
and consume bushels of wheat and soybeans
directly; instead, they eat food manufactured
from these crops. One study estimates that
for every 1 percent decrease in commodity
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THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
prices, food prices decline 0.25 percent.32
Another study determines that agricultural
subsidies explain about 1 percent of the increase in obesity over the past two decades.33
When price supports were still a mainstay of
U.S. farm policy, Washington established
“checkoff” programs to increase demand for
covered commodities, thereby lessening the
excess supply that it was obliged to purchase.
The checkoff programs required producers
to contribute a fixed amount per commodity
unit sold to a nonprofit organization that used
the money to increase consumer demand for
that commodity by researching new uses for
it and advertising those uses to consumers.
Commodity checkoff programs, which have
persisted even after price supports were removed, now spend $1 billion a year to increase demand for their products.34
Substantial checkoff resources go for advertising, and they have a considerable impact.
Checkoff-funded advertising campaigns include “Ahh, the Power of Cheese,” “Beef—
It’s What’s for Dinner,” “Pork—the Other
White Meat,” and “Got Milk?” Noel Blisard
estimates that the generic advertising of milk
totaled $29.8 million between October 1995
and September 1996, raising milk sales by 1.4
billion pounds, or 5.9 percent, while generic
advertising of cheese funded by checkoff programs increased sales of cheese by 62.7 million pounds, or 2.8 percent.35 Although advertising funded by checkoff dollars increases
consumer demand, collecting checkoff funds
from producers is a form of tax, which raises
producers’ costs and lowers the quantities
sold. On net, however, the checkoff programs
increase commodities’ sales.36
Whether checkoff-funded advertising encourages consumers to spend more money overall
on food or simply redirects their fixed food
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budget to the advertised products is unclear.
Brenda Boetel and Donald Liu find that beef
and pork advertising is “beggar thy neighbor”
in the sense that beef advertising decreases
the demand for pork and vice versa. They
conclude that beef and pork producers would
be better off if they agreed to reduce their
generic checkoff-funded advertising campaigns.37 Checkoff funds are also used to increase commodities’ sales by developing new
menu items for fast-food restaurants, such as
the McRib pork sandwich for McDonald’s
and Insider Pizza (which used one pound of
cheese per medium pizza) for Pizza Hut.38
Although analysts have linked various farm
policies to the increased sales of certain crops
and to the development of menu items for
fast-food restaurants, documenting the effect
these programs have on obesity itself requires more research.
Increased Food Advertising to Children
The food industry spent $7 billion on advertising in 1997, more than any other industry
except automobiles. Two-thirds of that advertising was by food manufacturers, 28 percent
by the food service industry (mostly fast-food
restaurants), and 8 percent by food stores.39
It is estimated that the number of television
commercials viewed each year by the average
American child doubled from about 20,000
in 1970 to 40,000 around the year 2000.40 But
although children are viewing more commercials, the length of the average commercial
has fallen.41 In addition, Roland Sturm finds
that the average time children spent watching TV fell 23 percent, or four hours a week,
between 1981 and 1997.42
One study, which analyzes the food advertisements aired during children’s Saturday morning television programming, concludes that if
a child consumed only the advertised food,
his diet would not be consistent with U.S. dietary recommendations.43 Gerard Hastings
and several colleagues conclude that over
time advertisements for fruits and vegetables
have disappeared and have been replaced by
ads for fast-food restaurants, breakfast cereals, soft drinks, and snacks.44
Two broad reviews of the experimental research on food advertising and youth diets
conclude that there is very mixed evidence
on whether television advertising causally affects children’s diets.45
Because of several limitations of this research,
including the use of small, nonrepresentative
samples, making it difficult to draw inferences
about larger populations from their findings,
the American Academy of Pediatrics and the
Institute of Medicine have called for more research on whether food advertising affects the
diets of American youth.46
Differences in Local Availability of Food
and Exercise Opportunities
The prevalence of childhood obesity shows
clear racial disparities. In 1998, 21.5 percent
of African American children and 21.8 percent of Hispanic children but only 12.3 percent of white children were overweight.47
Whether there are also economic disparities
in the prevalence of childhood obesity within
race and ethnic groups is less clear. R. P. Troiano and K. M. Flegal find no significant correlation between income and childhood obesity for African Americans or Hispanics. They
find weak evidence that higher-income white
adolescents are less likely to be obese, but
they warn this evidence must be interpreted
cautiously because of small sample sizes.48
Some researchers have argued that racial and
socioeconomic disparities in weight may be
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due in part to differences in the availability of
food and exercise opportunities. One study
finds that supermarkets are three times more
common in census tracts with home values in
the highest quintile than in tracts with homes
in the lowest quintile and four times more
common in predominantly white than in predominantly black neighborhoods.49 Conversely, smaller grocery stores and convenience stores without gas stations are more
common in lower-wealth and predominantly
black neighborhoods. Another study finds
that the probability of at least one supermarket located in an urban zip code is higher
where income is high and the poverty rate is
low. But it finds no link between that probability and the share of residents who had
graduated from high school.50
Some researchers argue that these disparities
are related to obesity because the proximity of
such businesses is correlated with diet quality.
Kimberly Morland, Steve Wing, and Ana
Roux compare food consumption reported in
questionnaires to food outlet availability in
the census tract of residence and find that
blacks living in census tracts with supermarkets are more likely to meet U.S. Dietary
Guidelines for fruits and vegetables, total fat,
and saturated fat. Findings for whites were
generally not statistically significant.51
Joel Waldfogel finds that the population’s educational and racial composition is correlated
with restaurant density. Controlling for population size within a zip code (which may itself
be correlated with both restaurant density and
the educational and racial composition in an
area), when the share of blacks and Hispanics
is higher, there are fewer sit-down restaurants
but more of certain fast-food restaurants.52
Analysts find similar patterns for active recreational facilities, such as public beaches,
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pools, youth centers, parks, YMCAs and
YWCAs, dance studios, and athletic clubs.
Penny Gordon-Larsen and several colleagues
find that all major categories of such facilities
are inequitably distributed across census
block groups by socioeconomic status, minority population, and education. They find that
the presence of just one such facility per census block group is associated with a 5 percent
lower probability of overweight.53
These studies are observational, not based on
randomized experiments, and thus include an
unknown degree of what researchers term
“selection bias.” Supermarkets and health
clubs may open outlets in places where people
are most interested in them—where they can
earn the highest profits—and not in areas with
low demand. Likewise, when people choose
where to live, they may consider the retail options available nearby. People who cook meals
from scratch may find it more attractive to live
near a full-service supermarket, and exercise
buffs may want to live near parks and gyms.
Because of such self-selection, correlations
between diet and supermarket proximity and
between physical activity and proximity to athletic facilities may arise even without a causal
relationship. For this reason, these research
findings cannot be interpreted as causal or evidence of discrimination.
A related research area claims that new suburbs and developments contribute to obesity
because they lack sidewalks and places to
which people could walk or because they require long commutes.54 But children’s physical activity appears uncorrelated with such
neighborhood characteristics as the availability of local facilities and safety.55
Decreased Smoking
Over the same period that the prevalence of
obesity has been on the rise, the prevalence
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of adult smoking has fallen—from 33.2 percent in 1980 to 21.6 percent in 2003.56 The
share of high school students who smoke has
also declined, from 27.5 percent in 1991 to
21.9 percent in 2003.57 The trends in smoking and obesity may be related. A surgeon
general’s report reviewed fifteen medical
studies and found that between 58 percent
and 87 percent of those who quit smoking
gained, on average, four pounds.58 One study
finds adults’ weight is positively correlated
with the local price of cigarettes (the higher
the price, the higher the weight); the correlation with weight is roughly the same as that of
grocery prices. The study finds no correlation
of weight with clean indoor air laws that restrict smoking.59 A second study, however,
faults the first for not taking into account
time trends in smoking and for focusing on
cigarette prices instead of cigarette taxes;
after making the necessary corrections, that
study finds that higher cigarette taxes are associated with lower weight.60
Economic Rationales for Market
Intervention
If the government is to intervene in a market
to reduce obesity, it should have an economic
rationale to do so. Several such rationales
exist. First, in free markets producers generally under-provide information. Governments can easily disseminate this information
to help consumers make informed choices.
The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act
(NLEA) of 1990 requires producers to print
nutrition labels on packaged foods, but no
law requires the release of nutritional information for restaurant food or fountain drinks.
The second economic rationale for government intervention is that the costs of obesity
are borne broadly by society. A 2003 study estimates that through Medicare and Medicaid,
the government’s medical care programs for
the elderly and the indigent, taxpayers pay
half the total costs of treating obesity-related
illnesses—costs that in 1998 amounted to
$92.6 billion (in 2002 dollars).61 The government may seek to reduce obesity to lower
these costs to taxpayers.
The third economic rationale for intervention, which applies specifically to childhood
obesity, is that children are not what econo-
Over the same period that the
prevalence of obesity has been
on the rise, the prevalence of
adult smoking has fallen—
from 33.2 percent in 1980 to
21.6 percent in 2003.
mists call “rational consumers.” They cannot
evaluate information critically and weigh the
future consequences of their actions. For
much the same reason that the government
bans sales of cigarettes and alcohol to minors—to protect them from making poor decisions that adversely affect their health—it
may likewise seek to regulate sales of certain
foods to youth.
How to Choose among
the Policy Options
Given the three different economic rationales for government intervention, what policies are most appropriate? From an economic perspective, the primary goal is to
repair the problem in the market. For example, the government can directly address the
lack of information by requiring companies
to provide it. One simple way to improve the
food markets’ efficiency is to expand the
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NLEA to require that detailed nutritional information accompany all foods and menus.
Adult consumers, at least, appear to respond
to such information. One study finds that a
media campaign urging people to shift from
whole-fat to low-fat milk changed consumer
purchases.62 Another study documents a consumer shift from high-fat toward low-fat
salad dressing after product labels were required to reveal fat content.63 Another finds
that the NLEA decreased weight gain for
white females who read labels while shopping and estimates that the NLEA’s benefits
totaled $101 billion a year.64
It is not clear, however, how to present nutrition and calorie information so that consumers, especially children and adolescents,
can use and understand it. Further research
is needed on how to make nutritional information comprehensible to children.
When the government makes information
available, it must be careful to put it in a
proper context; failure to do so can lead to
unfortunate unintended consequences. For
example, in 2003, in an effort to inform parents, Arkansas passed a law requiring schools
to weigh children and to notify parents of
their child’s body mass index. Although the
law provides parents with information they
may have lacked, it has had some unforeseen
negative consequences. Some muscular children have been incorrectly classified as overweight, and concerns have arisen about privacy and self-esteem.65 Failing to put the
information into its proper context also raises
a risk that parents may impose ineffective or
harmful fad diets.
Although the government can correct the
problem of incomplete information in a relatively straightforward manner, it cannot so
easily fix the other two problems—societal
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costs of obesity and irrational consumers.
The typical economic response to societal
costs is to tax whatever imposes the cost or to
subsidize behaviors that could decrease the
societal costs. In this context, that would
imply taxing obesity and subsidizing weight
loss for the obese, but taxing people based on
their weight or changes in weight would be
difficult to implement and is politically unattractive. Subsidizing consumers who lose
weight or maintain a healthy body weight
would be similarly difficult to implement.
It is also hard to imagine how the government
could implement a policy to enable children
to become entirely rational consumers who
take into account the future consequences of
their actions. In the absence of an ideal policy
to reduce societal costs and address children’s
“irrational” behavior, the question becomes
whether other, “second-best” policies could
both decrease obesity and do more good than
harm for society overall.
Many possible second-best interventions
exist. From the economic perspective, the
correct way to choose among them is to analyze their cost-effectiveness. The first step in
such analysis is to estimate all the costs and
benefits associated with each intervention;
the second is to rank the interventions according to how cheaply they achieve the policy goal, thus allowing policymakers to use a
fixed budget most efficiently—to get, in
other words, the most bang for the buck. Few
anti-obesity interventions, however, especially those targeted to youth, have as yet
been subjected to cost-effectiveness analysis.
Nevertheless, I describe several possible second-best interventions.
Protecting Children from Advertising
If the government decides to protect children
from advertising, one particular venue for in-
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tervention is the public school system, where
the government is solely responsible for the
advertising environment. Under budgetary
pressure, some school districts have signed
contracts with Channel One, which gives
them televisions, educational materials, and
cash in exchange for allowing Channel One to
advertise products such as candy, food, and
soda pop directly to children in the classroom
for two minutes each day.66 The risk is that
children who are a captive audience for such
food advertising may increase both their consumption of the advertised foods and their
risk of obesity. A cost-benefit analysis can determine whether the benefits of working with
Channel One exceed the costs.
Some observers have advocated banning all
food advertising to children in all venues.67
Many developed countries, including
Canada, Great Britain, and Australia, have
banned all television advertising to children.68 In the United States, however, Congress has historically tolerated little regulation of commercial speech. For example, the
United States is one of only two industrialized countries (the other is New Zealand) to
permit direct-to-consumer advertising of
pharmaceuticals.69 In 1979, the Federal
Trade Commission (FTC) sought to regulate
the television advertising of sugary cereals to
children because of concerns about tooth
decay. Congress, however, chose to recognize
broad latitude for commercial speech and
blocked the FTC from pursuing the case.70
The U.S. government has shielded children
from advertising in some cases. The 1992
Telephone Disclosure and Dispute Resolution Act, for example, bans advertising of
1-900 phone numbers to children younger
than age twelve and requires that advertising
directed to children younger than age eighteen include the warning that children need
their parents’ permission to use the service.
And in the mid-1990s the Food and Drug
Administration adopted rules against advertising cigarettes near schools or in campaigns
targeted to children.
Using Taxes and Subsidies to Change
Behaviors That Cause Obesity
As noted, taxing or subsidizing people based
on their weight or changes in weight would
It is also hard to imagine how
the government could
implement a policy to enable
children to become entirely
rational consumers who take
into account the future
consequences of their actions.
be politically unattractive and difficult to implement. However, some second-best tax and
subsidy policies to alter behaviors may be
feasible. For example, policymakers could
implement taxes and subsidies that either
discourage the consumption of certain foods
or encourage physical activity. To evaluate
whether such policies are worthwhile, policymakers must weigh their costs and benefits.
One could, for example, tax certain foods.
Even though consuming food per se does not
impose costs on society, a food tax might sufficiently decrease consumption that obesity
would fall, cutting the costs imposed on society. Such taxes have been shown to affect food
choices. A series of recent experiments confirms that even schoolchildren’s purchases are
sensitive to changes in the relative prices of
foods.71
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But taxing food involves several problems.
The first is that although proponents often
call for a “junk food” tax, it is not obvious
which foods most contribute to obesity.72 Any
food, if consumed in sufficient quantity, can
contribute to calorie surplus and weight gain.
Second, food taxes would be regressive,
falling more heavily on poor families who
spend a larger share of their income on food
than do wealthier families.
The other major option is to subsidize behavior that decreases obesity-related societal
costs. In essence, local governments already
do that when they subsidize public parks,
pools, and athletic facilities and when they
provide free physical education, nutrition education, and sports teams in public schools.
Government subsidies for installing sidewalks or for full-service supermarkets that
stock fresh fruits and vegetables to operate in
low-income or minority neighborhoods are
other possible interventions.
Before governments increase funding for
these programs, though, they should subject
them to cost-benefit analyses. So far, subsidies
for youth physical activity appear to have little
effect. Children’s physical activity, for example, appears uncorrelated with the availability
of local facilities or with neighborhood safety.
Increased physical education requirements
are associated with small changes in physical
activity but have no detectable impact on
weight or the probability of overweight.73
Regulating Food Markets in Schools
Again, a special venue for intervention is the
public school, where the government is responsible for the food environment. For example, states could require all schools to remove vending machines for soda and candy.
Because children are not generally capable of
choosing foods to achieve energy balance,
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energy-dense foods such as sodas and candy
may be the most likely to lead to energy imbalance and subsequent obesity (although, as
noted, any food can cause obesity if consumed in sufficient quantity.) Schools could
reconfigure meals to consist of low energydense foods that facilitate energy balance and
serve portions that take into account the portion size effect observed in the research literature. A potential cost of removing vending
machines and no longer selling energy-dense
foods, however, is that schools may lose considerable revenue from “pouring rights” contracts with soft drink manufacturers and from
cafeteria sales, revenue that may be used to
advance the educational mission of the
school.74
A 2005 Government Accountability Office
report found that many schools generate considerable revenue by selling foods outside of
their school lunch programs. The report
estimates that about 30 percent of all high
schools generated more than $125,000 per
school through such sales, and that 30 percent of all elementary schools generated
more than $5,000 per school. The study
found that schools typically use these revenues to offset losses associated with their
other food service programs and to fund student activities. Cost-benefit analyses should
take into account the impact of any decrease
in these revenues that would result from a
ban on energy-dense foods.75
Mending or Ending Programs That May
Inadvertently Contribute to Obesity
Government intervention could also take the
form of modifying or canceling programs that
contribute to obesity. For example, costbenefit analyses could assess the net benefit
of agricultural production subsidies and price
supports. These programs clearly benefit
farmers, and while some observers argue that
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uninsurable crop risks and weather uncertainty justify this agriculture policy, others
counter that current policy is designed primarily to transfer wealth to farmers and processors.76 Farm policy contributes to obesity by
lowering food prices, but its effect on weight
may be small.77 A cost-benefit analysis could
help determine whether society is better off
with or without current agriculture policies.
Another existing policy that the government
can reconsider is the ban on lawsuits against
food companies by plaintiffs who allege that
the company’s products made them obese. In
2004 twelve states adopted laws that block
consumers from filing such lawsuits; so far in
2005 seven more states have followed, and
nineteen more states are considering such
laws.78 But such blanket liability waivers remove the food industry’s incentives to disclose information about the food’s content, to
exercise restraint in advertising to children,
and to ensure the food’s safety. Legal scholars
are generally skeptical that torts against the
food industry will be as successful as recent
ones against tobacco companies, in part because no subset of foods can be proven to be
solely responsible for causing obesity and
therefore no single food or restaurant company can be shown to be liable.79 But to encourage the food industry to keep its customers’ welfare in mind, consumers need to
be able to pursue such legal cases, which can
always be thrown out if frivolous.
Assessing Cost-Effectiveness
Although cost-effectiveness analysis of antiobesity initiatives is in short supply, some evidence exists. Studies, for example, have calculated the cost of saving a quality-adjusted
life year (QALY) associated with specific interventions. (A quality-adjusted life year attempts to take into account the quality of the
extra lifespan; for example, an extra year of
life in a persistent vegetative state receives a
QALY score near zero whereas an extra year
of life in perfect health receives a full QALY
score of 1.) The decision rule for costeffectiveness analysis is generally to implement the policy with the lowest cost per
QALY and to continue implementing policies
until either the initiative’s budget is exhausted or the cost per QALY saved rises
above some threshold. This threshold, historically $50,000 per QALY, has more recently
been raised to $200,000, but other benchmarks are also used.80 For example, Richard
Hirth and several colleagues estimate that
under various sets of circumstances, Americans are willing to pay from $150,000 per
QALY to more than $425,000 per QALY.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have conducted a multiyear project to assess the cost-effectiveness of seven “exemplary” interventions to increase physical
activity. (None of the interventions was targeted at children and adolescents.) The study
concludes that the lowest-cost exemplary intervention was Wheeling Walks, an eightweek, intensive community-wide intervention
that promoted walking among sedentary fiftyto sixty-five-year-olds using paid media and
public health activities at work sites, churches,
and local organizations. That intervention cost
$14,286 per QALY saved.81 The other six interventions were estimated to cost between
$27,373 and $68,557 per QALY saved. These
estimates were for a forty-year analytic time
horizon. For shorter time horizons the costs
per QALY were considerably higher (more
than $100,000 for a ten-year horizon), because
many health benefits of weight loss are reaped
only later in life while the intervention’s costs
are always paid up front.
In contrast, estimates show bariatric surgery
for the severely obese costs between $5,400
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and $16,100 per QALY for women and
$10,700 to $35,600 per QALY for men.82 Providing an anti-obesity drug to overweight
patients with diabetes has been estimated to
cost $8,327 per QALY.83 These studies indicate that there may be available a variety of
cost-effective anti-obesity interventions,
some involving prevention and others involving treatment.
Conclusion
Researchers have concluded that the market
has contributed to overweight in children in
primarily three ways over the past several
decades. First, the real price of food fell (perhaps in part because of changing agriculture
policies). Second, the time cost of food
preparation rose for college graduates. And,
third, technological changes created incentives to use packaged food rather than to prepare foods. Given the few additional daily
calories that caused the rise in obesity over
the past two decades, it will likely be impossible to know which of these changes is most
responsible for the increase in obesity.
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THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
Several economic rationales justify government intervention in markets to address childhood obesity: a lack of information, youthful
irrationality, and the societal costs of obesity.
The government can address the lack of information easily and directly, but formulating
policies to address the other two rationales is
more difficult. Several second-best policies to
reduce obesity exist, but it is as yet impossible
to choose among them without cost-effectiveness studies. Once such studies are available,
they will help policymakers achieve the greatest benefit from a fixed budget.
Americans can be optimistic about policy interventions’ effectiveness in addressing obesity because small changes in flows of calories
can have enormous impacts on individuals.
One calculation implies that if Americans had
consumed 50 fewer calories per day over the
past twenty years, 90 percent of Americans
could have avoided recent weight gains.84
Even small changes in behavior today can
substantially decrease childhood obesity in
future decades.
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Notes
1. Cynthia Ogden and others, “Prevalence and Trends in Overweight among U.S. Children and Adolescents,
1999–2000,” Journal of the American Medical Association 288, no. 14 (2002): 1728–32. To avoid stigmatizing children, the highest clinical weight classification for children is “overweight” rather than obesity. However, in this paper I use the terms “overweight” and “obesity” interchangeably for children.
2. Cara B. Ebbeling, Dorota B. Pawlak, and David S. Ludwig, “Childhood Obesity: Public Health Crisis,
Common Sense Cure,” Lancet 360 (2002): 473–82; S. Y. S. Kimm and E. Obarzanek, “Childhood Obesity:
A New Pandemic of the New Millennium,” Pediatrics 110, no. 5 (2002): 1003–07; Rebecca Puhl and Kelly
D. Brownell, “Stigma, Discrimination, and Obesity,” in Eating Disorders and Obesity: A Comprehensive
Handbook, edited by C. G. Fairburn and K. D. Brownell (New York: Guilford Press, 2002); Richard S.
Strauss, “Childhood Obesity and Self-Esteem,” Pediatrics 105, no. 1 (2000): e15–e20.
3. Jeffrey P. Koplan, Catharyn T. Liverman, and Vivica I. Kraak, eds., Preventing Childhood Obesity: Health
in the Balance (Washington: National Academies Press, 2004).
4. The economic framework or model of eating, physical activity, and obesity is provided in detail in John
Cawley, “An Economic Framework for Understanding Physical Activity and Eating Behaviors,” American
Journal of Preventive Medicine 27, no. 3 (2004): 1–9; John Cawley, “The Economics of Childhood Obesity
Policy,” in Obesity, Business, and Public Policy, edited by Zoltan Acs and Alan Lyles (Northampton, Mass.:
Edward Elgar, forthcoming); and Darius Lakdawalla and Tomas J. Philipson, “Economics of Obesity,” in
The Elgar Companion to Health Economics, edited by Andrew Jones (New York: Edward Elgar, 2006).
5. James Hill and others, “Obesity and the Environment: Where Do We Go from Here?” Science 299, no. 7
(2003): 853–55.
6. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Consumer Price Index—All Urban Consumers” (http://data.bls.gov/PDQ/
outside.jsp?survey=cu [November 15, 2005]).
7. D. Lakdawalla and T. Philipson, “The Growth of Obesity and Technological Change: A Theoretical and
Empirical Examination,” Working Paper 8946 (Cambridge, Mass.: National Bureau of Economic Research,
2002).
8. Daron Acemoglu, “Technical Change, Inequality, and the Labor Market,” Journal of Economic Literature
40, no. 1 (2002): 7–72.
9. J. P. Robinson and G. Godbey, Time for Life: The Surprising Ways That Americans Use Their Time (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999); Roland Sturm, “The Economics of Physical Activity: Societal Trends
and Rationales for Interventions,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 27, no. 3S (2004): 126–35.
10. D. M. Cutler, E. L. Glaeser, and J. M. Shapiro, “Why Have Americans Become More Obese?” Journal of
Economic Perspectives 17, no. 3 (2003): 93–118.
11. U.S. Department of Labor, Women in the Labor Force: A Databook, Report 973 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2004).
12. P. M. Anderson, K. F. Butcher, and P. B. Levine, “Maternal Employment and Overweight Children,” Journal of Health Economics 22 (2003): 477–504.
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13. R. M. Blank, “Evaluating Welfare Reform in the United States,” Journal of Economic Literature 40, no. 4
(2002): 1105–66.
14. Adam Drewnowski and S. E. Specter, “Poverty and Obesity: The Role of Energy Density and Energy
Costs,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 79, no. 1 (2004): 6–16.
15. Jane Reed, Elizabeth Frazao, and Rachel Itskowitz, “How Much Do Americans Pay for Fruits and Vegetables?” U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Agriculture Information Bulletin no.
790, July 2004.
16. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Consumer Price Index” (see note 6).
17. Biing-Hwan Lin, Joanne Guthrie, and Elizabeth Frazao, “Away-from-Home Foods Increasingly Important
to Quality of American Diet,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Agriculture
Information Bulletin no. 749, 1999.
18. Biing-Hwan Lin, Joanne Guthrie, and Elizabeth Frazao, “Quality of Children’s Diets at and away from
Home: 1994–96,” Food Review 22, no. 1 (1999): 2–10.
19. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Consumer Price Index” (see note 6).
20. Lin, Guthrie, and Frazao, “Away-from-Home Foods” (see note 17).
21. Ibid.
22. Lisa R. Young and Marion Nestle, “The Contribution of Expanding Portion Sizes to the U.S. Obesity Epidemic,” American Journal of Public Health 92, no. 2 (2002): 246–49.
23. Brian Wansink, “Environmental Factors That Increase the Food Intake and Consumption Volume of Unknowing Consumers,” Annual Review of Nutrition 24 (2004): 455–79; Barbara J. Rolls, “The Supersizing of
America: Portion Size and the Obesity Epidemic,” Nutrition Today 38, no. 2 (2003): 42–53; Jenny H.
Ledikwe, Julia Ello-Martin, and Barbara J. Rolls, “Portion Sizes and the Obesity Epidemic,” Journal of Nutrition 135, no. 4 (2005): 905–09.
24. Barbara J. Rolls, Dianne Engell, and Leann L. Birch, “Serving Portion Size Increases 5-Year-Old but Not
3-Year-Old Children’s Food Intakes,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 100 (2000): 232–34.
25. Helen Smiciklas-Wright and others, “Foods Commonly Eaten in the United States, 1989–1991 and
1994–1996: Are Portion Sizes Changing?” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 103 (2003): 41–47.
26. John Cawley and Barrett Kirwan, “U.S. Agricultural Policy and Obesity,” unpublished manuscript, Cornell
University, 2005.
27. U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Sugar and Sweeteners: Policy” (www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/Sugar/policy.htm#trqs [November 15, 2005]).
28. G. A. Bray, S. J. Nielsen, and B. M. Popkin, “Consumption of High-Fructose Corn Syrup in Beverages May
Play a Role in the Epidemic of Obesity,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 79, no. 4 (2004): 537–43;
Michael Pollan, “The (Agri)Cultural Contradictions of Obesity,” New York Times, October 12, 2003; Greg
Critser, Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World (New York: Houghton Mifflin,
2003).
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29. P. C. Westcott and J. M. Price, “Analysis of the U.S. Commodity Loan Program with Marketing Loan Provisions,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Economic Report 801, 2001.
30. E. Douglas Beach and others, “An Assessment of the Effect on Land Values of Eliminating Direct Payments to Farmers in the United States,” Journal of Economic Development 22, no. 2 (1997): 1–27.
31. B. Gardner, “U.S. Agricultural Policies since 1995, with a Focus on Market Effects in Grains and Oilseeds,”
Working Paper 02-17 (Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Maryland,
2002).
32. C. J. M. Paul and J. M. MacDonald, “Tracing the Effects of Agricultural Commodity Prices and Food
Costs,” American Journal of Agricultural Economics 85, no. 3 (2003): 633–46.
33. Cawley and Kirwan, “U.S. Agricultural Policy” (see note 26).
34. Harry M. Kaiser, “Distribution of Benefits and Costs of Commodity Checkoff Programs: Introductory Remarks,” Agribusiness 19, no. 3 (2003): 273–75.
35. Noel Blisard, “Advertising and What We Eat: The Case of Dairy Products,” in America’s Eating Habits:
Changes and Consequences, edited by Elizabeth Frazao, Agriculture Information Bulletin no. 750 (Washington: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1999).
36. Ibid.
37. Brenda L. Boetel and Donald J. Liu, “Evaluating the Effect of Generic Advertising and Food Health Information within a Meat Demand System,” Agribusiness 19, no. 3 (2003): 345–54.
38. The Pork Board, “2003 Checkoff Timeline Brochure” (www.porkboard.org/docs/checkoff%20timeline%20bro2003.pdf [November 15, 2005]); Dairy Management, Inc., “February 2005 Dairy Checkoff Update,” press release (www.dairycheckoff.com/DairyCheckoff/MediaCenter/CheckoffUpdate/Postings/ February+2005.htm [October 28, 2005]).
39. Anthony E. Gallo, “Food Advertising in the United States,” in America’s Eating Habits: Changes and Consequences, edited by Elizabeth Frazao, Agriculture Information Bulletin no. 750 (Washington: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1999).
40. D. Kunkel, “Children and Television Advertising,” in Handbook of Children and the Media, edited by D.
Singer and J. Singer (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2001).
41. H. L. Taras and M. Gage, “Advertised Foods on Children’s Television,” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent
Medicine 149, no. 6 (1995): 649–52.
42. Roland Sturm, “Childhood Obesity: What We Can Learn from Existing Data on Societal Trends, Part 1,”
Preventing Chronic Disease 2, no. 1 (2005): 1–9.
43. K. Kotz and M. Story, “Food Advertisements during Children’s Saturday Morning Television Programming:
Are They Consistent with Dietary Recommendations?” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 94,
no. 11 (1994): 1296–1300.
44. Gerard Hastings and others, “Review of Research on the Effects of Food Promotion to Children” (Centre
for Social Marketing, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, U.K., 2003).
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45. Hastings and others, “Review of Research” (see note 44); D. Borzekowski and T. Robinson, “The 30Second Effect: An Experiment Revealing the Impact of Television Commercials on Food Preferences of
Preschoolers,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 101, no. 1 (2001): 42–46.
46. American Academy of Pediatrics, “Children, Adolescents, and Advertising,” Pediatrics 95, no. 2 (1995):
295–97; Koplan, Liverman, and Kraak, Preventing Childhood Obesity (see note 3).
47. Richard S. Strauss and Harold A. Pollack, “Epidemic Increase in Childhood Overweight, 1986–1998,”
Journal of the American Medical Association 286, no. 22 (2001): 2845–48.
48. R. P. Troiano and K. M. Flegal, “Overweight Children and Adolescents: Description, Epidemiology, and
Demographics,” Pediatrics 101, no. 3 (1998): 497–504.
49. Kimberly Morland and others, “Neighborhood Characteristics Associated with the Location of Food Stores
and Food Service Places,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 22, no. 1 (2002): 23–29.
50. Diane Gibson, “Neighborhood Characteristics and the Local Food Environment: Supermarket Availability
in the 50 Largest Cities in the United States,” Working Paper (Baruch College, City University of New
York, 2005).
51. Kimberly Morland, Steve Wing, and Ana Diez Roux, “The Contextual Effect of the Local Food Environment on Residents’ Diets: The Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study,” American Journal of Public
Health 92, no. 11 (2002): 1761–67.
52. Joel Waldfogel, “The Median Voter and the Median Consumer: Local Private Goods and Residential Sorting,” unpublished manuscript, University of Pennsylvania, 2004.
53. Penny Gordon-Larsen and others, “Inequality in the Built Environment Underlies Key Health Disparities
in Physical Activity and Obesity,” Pediatrics (forthcoming).
54. R. Ewing and others, “The Relationship between Urban Sprawl and Physical Activity, Obesity, and Morbidity,” American Journal of Health Promotion 18, no. 1 (2003): 47–57; Lawrence Frank, Martin Andresen,
and Tom Schmid, “Obesity Relationships with Community Design, Physical Activity, and Time Spent in
Cars,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 27 (2004): 87–96.
55. J. M. Zakarian and others, “Correlates of Vigorous Exercise in a Predominantly Low SES and Minority
High School Population,” Preventive Medicine 23 (1994): 314–21; J. F. Sallis and others, “Predictors of
Change in Children’s Physical Activity over 20 Months: Variations by Gender and Level of Adiposity,”
American Journal of Preventive Medicine 16, no. 3 (1999): 222–29.
56. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Smoking Prevalence among U.S. Adults” (www.cdc.gov/tobacco/research_data/adults_prev/prevali.htm [November 15, 2005]).
57. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Cigarette Use among High School Students—United States,
1991–2003,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 53, no. 23 (2004): 499–502.
58. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, The Health Benefits of Smoking Cessation: A Report of
the Surgeon General (Rockville, Md.: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1990).
59. Shin-Yi Chou, Michael Grossman, and Henry Saffer, “An Economic Analysis of Adult Obesity: Results
from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System,” Journal of Health Economics 23, no. 3 (2004):
565–87.
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60. Jonathan Gruber and Michael Frakes, “Does Falling Smoking Lead to Rising Obesity?” Working Paper
11483 (Cambridge, Mass.: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2005).
61. E. Finkelstein, I. Fiebelkorn, and G. Wang, “National Medical Spending Attributable to Overweight and
Obesity: How Much and Who’s Paying?” Health Affairs Web Exclusive, May 14, 2003.
62. B. Reger, M. G. Wootan, and S. Booth-Butterfield, “Using Mass Media to Promote Healthy Eating: A
Community-Based Demonstration Project,” Preventive Medicine 29 (1999): 414–21.
63. Alan Mathios, “The Impact of Mandatory Disclosure Laws on Product Choices: An Analysis of the Salad
Dressing Market,” Journal of Law and Economics 43, no. 2 (2000): 651–77.
64. Jayachandran N. Variyam and John Cawley, “Nutrition Labels and Obesity,” paper presented at the 2005
Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management Conference, Washington, November 3, 2005.
65. Health Policy Tracking Service: A Thomson West Business, July 11, 2005.
66. Koplan, Liverman, and Kraak, Preventing Childhood Obesity (see note 3).
67. Marion Nestle, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (University of California Press, 2002); E. Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (New York:
Houghton Mifflin, 2001).
68. Dale Kunkel and others, Report of the APA Task Force on Advertising and Children (Washington: American Psychological Association, 2004).
69. Ernst Berndt, “The United States’ Experience with Direct-to-Consumer Advertising of Prescription
Drugs: What Have We Learned?” Unpublished manuscript, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
70. Ibid.; Mary Engle, testimony before the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Prevention of Obesity in
Children and Youth, Washington, December 9, 2003.
71. S. A. French and others, “A Pricing Strategy to Promote Low-Fat Snack Choices through Vending Machines,” American Journal of Public Health 87, no. 5 (1997): 849–51; S. A. French and others, “Pricing and
Promotion Effects on Low-Fat Vending Snack Purchases: The CHIPS Study,” American Journal of Public
Health 91 (2001): 112–17; P. Hannan and others, “A Pricing Strategy to Promote Sales of Lower Fat Foods
in High School Cafeterias: Acceptability and Sensitivity Analysis,” American Journal of Health Promotion
17, no. 1 (2002): 1–6.
72. Koplan, Liverman, and Kraak, Preventing Childhood Obesity (see note 3).
73. Zakarian and others, “Correlates of Vigorous Exercise” (see note 55); Sallis and others, “Predictors of
Change” (see note 57); John Cawley, Chad Meyerhoefer, and David Newhouse, “The Impact of State Physical Education Requirements on Youth Physical Activity and Overweight,” Working Paper 11411 (Cambridge, Mass.: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2005).
74. Patricia M. Anderson and Kristin F. Butcher, “Reading, Writing, and Raisinets: Are School Finances Contributing to Children’s Obesity?” Working Paper 11177 (Cambridge, Mass.: National Bureau of Economic
Research, 2005).
75. U.S. Accountability Office, “School Meal Programs: Competitive Foods Are Widely Available and Generate Substantial Revenues for Schools,” GAO-05-563 (Washington, GAO, 2005).
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76. James E. Tillotson, “Pandemic Obesity: Agriculture’s Cheap Food Policy Is a Bad Bargain,” Nutrition
Today 38, no. 5 (2003): 186–90.
77. Gardner, “U.S. Agricultural Policies since 1995” (see note 31); Paul and MacDonald, “Tracing the Effects”
(see note 32); Cawley and Kirwan, “U.S. Agricultural Policy and Obesity” (see note 26).
78. Health Policy Tracking Service (see note 65).
79. Todd G. Buchholz, Burger, Fries, and Lawyers: The Beef behind Obesity Lawsuits (Washington: U.S.
Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, 2003); Richard A. Daynard, Lauren E. Hash, and Anthony Robbins,
“Food Litigation: Lessons from the Tobacco Wars,” Journal of the American Medical Association 288, no.
17 (2002): 2179–81.
80. Larissa Roux, “Evaluation of Potential Solutions to the Health and Economic Problems Presented by Physical Activity: A Cost-Utility Analysis,” unpublished manuscript, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2005; R. A. Hirth and others, “Willingness to Pay for a QALY: In Search of a Standard,” Medical Decision Making 20, no. 3 (2000): 332–42.
81. Roux, “Evaluation of Potential Solutions” (see note 80).
82. J. Fang, “The Cost-Effectiveness of Bariatric Surgery,” American Journal of Gastroenterology 98, no. 9
(2003): 2097–98.
83. A. Maetzel and others, “Economic Evaluation of Orlistat in Overweight and Obese Patients with Type 2
Diabetes Mellitus,” Pharmacoeconomics 21, no. 7 (2003): 501–12.
84. Hill and others, “Obesity and the Environment” (see note 5).
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The Role of Built Environments in Physical
Activity, Eating, and Obesity in Childhood
James F. Sallis and Karen Glanz
Summary
Over the past forty years various changes in the U.S. “built environment” have promoted
sedentary lifestyles and less healthful diets. James Sallis and Karen Glanz investigate whether
these changes have had a direct effect on childhood obesity and whether improvements to
encourage more physical activity and more healthful diets are likely to lower rates of childhood
obesity.
Researchers, say Sallis and Glanz, have found many links between the built environment and
children’s physical activity, but they have yet to find conclusive evidence that aspects of the
built environment promote obesity. For example, certain development patterns, such as a lack
of sidewalks, long distances to schools, and the need to cross busy streets, discourage walking
and biking to school. Eliminating such barriers can increase rates of active commuting. But researchers cannot yet prove that more active commuting would reduce rates of obesity.
Sallis and Glanz note that recent changes in the nutrition environment, including greater reliance on convenience foods and fast foods, a lack of access to fruits and vegetables, and expanding portion sizes, are also widely believed to contribute to the epidemic of childhood obesity. But again, conclusive evidence that changes in the nutrition environment will reduce rates
of obesity does not yet exist.
Research into the link between the built environment and childhood obesity is still in its infancy. Analysts do not know whether changes in the built environment have increased rates of
obesity or whether improvements to the built environment will decrease them. Nevertheless,
say Sallis and Glanz, the policy implications are clear. People who have access to safe places to
be active, neighborhoods that are walkable, and local markets that offer healthful food are
likely to be more active and to eat more healthful food—two types of behavior that can lead to
good health and may help avoid obesity.
www.futureofchildren.org
James F. Sallis is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and director of Active Living Research, a program of the Robert
Wood Johnson Foundation. Karen Glanz is a professor of behavioral sciences, health education, and epidemiology at Emory University and
the director of the Emory Prevention Research Center.
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A
ny effort to understand or reduce obesity must consider the
“built environment.” Loosely
defined, the built environment
consists of the neighborhoods,
roads, buildings, food sources, and recreational facilities in which people live, work,
are educated, eat, and play. The way the built
environment is created can affect many daily
decisions. Whether people walk to work or
school, eat frequently at fast-food restaurants, or take their children to parks may depend in part on how neighborhoods are built.
When one studies the built environment in
the context of the obesity epidemic, it is important to ask three questions. First, how
does the built environment affect important
lifestyle decisions? Second, would changing
the infrastructure alter decisionmaking? And,
third, would these changes affect Americans’
weight and overall health? For example, although much of America’s built environment
has changed over the past forty years in ways
that have promoted sedentary lifestyles, it is
not known whether these changes have had a
direct effect on obesity rates or whether
changes in the built environment will lower
these rates. In this paper, we attempt to shed
some light on these issues.
Built environments affect children’s weight
by shaping both their eating habits and their
physical activity. Research into the links between the physical places where children live
and children’s activity levels and eating
habits, it must be said, is less conclusive than
research in other areas covered in this volume. In the first place, research on youth is
limited, though studies of adults can provide
some insights for youth. A second important
limitation of virtually all existing studies is the
possibility of self-selection. A study may find
that people who live near parks are more active than people who do not, but it cannot
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confidently conclude that proximity to parks
is the cause of that activity. Perhaps, instead,
active people choose to live near parks. A
better study design would focus on the effect
of environmental changes in a neighborhood
on the people living there, but so far such
studies have been limited to small changes
such as building trails.1 Tracking major environmental changes is extremely difficult because the changes are not under the control
of investigators, and most such changes take
far longer to be completed than the typical
research study does. The “ideal” study, the
randomized trial, is simply not possible because people cannot be randomly assigned to
live in particular neighborhoods.
Despite the limits of research in this area,
leaders in public health have stressed the
need for changes in the built environment to
improve health.2 New reports by two authoritative panels recognize that consistent links
between environmental factors and physical
activity provide valuable evidence that should
inform policy change.3 Both available evidence and common sense support four obesity-related goals: ensuring that all children
have access to safe and convenient places to
be physically active, ensuring that the bulk of
food available to children in most settings
meets nutritional guidelines, reducing promotion of unhealthful food and sedentary behaviors, and making it easy to identify and affordable to buy healthful foods.
The Built Environment and
Physical Activity
Children themselves know that characteristics of the built environment affect how active they can be: physical activity is welcome
in certain places and is difficult, discouraged,
or even prohibited in others. Buildings,
transportation infrastructure, elements of
land use and community design, and recre-
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The Role of Built Environments in Physical Activity, Eating, and Obesity in Childhood
ational facilities, such as parks and trails, all
affect citizens’ physical activity.
attractiveness of recreational facilities and
programs.11
Active Recreation
Health and recreation researchers have
focused on the link between access to recreation facilities and children’s recreational
physical activity. A handful of studies have
shown what common sense would also
suggest: children and adolescents with access to recreational facilities and programs,
usually near their homes, are more active
than those without such access.4 Adolescent
girls’ physical activity is related to the proximity of recreational facilities.5 The more
often young adolescents use recreational facilities, the greater their total physical activity, with parks and the neighborhood most
important for boys and with commercial facilities and the neighborhood most important for girls.6 Preschool children are more
active when there are more places nearby
where vigorous play is welcome and when
they spend more time in those places.7
Three studies of preschool children using direct observation report that being outdoors
is the strongest correlate of the children’s
physical activity.8
If further research confirms the associations
between access to facilities and youth physical
activity, the policy implication is clear: all children need places where they can be physically
active on a regular basis. The most important
such places appear to be outdoors and in the
neighborhood and include both public parks
and commercial facilities. Because children
There are some contrary findings. Two studies, for example, reported no significant links
between physical activity and such variables
as environmental barriers, access to supervised programs, and distance to parks.9 Both
studies, however, were based on parental reports rather than direct observation. Another
study of young children found no relation between their proximity to playgrounds and
being overweight.10
To sum up, the broad conclusions of existing
studies are consonant with a review of research on adults, which consistently linked
physical activity with both access to and the
If further research confirms
the associations between
access to facilities and youth
physical activity, the policy
implication is clear: all
children need places where
they can be physically active
on a regular basis.
engage in such a variety of activities and because their recreational needs vary widely by
age, providing many different types of facilities is a promising policy objective.
How accessible facilities are depends on how
close they are to children’s homes or schools,
how costly they are to use, and how easily
they can be reached. At least two U.S. studies
found fewer parks, sports fields, fitness clubs,
and trails in low-income neighborhoods than
in more affluent ones, suggesting that lowincome youth may face barriers to physical
activity.12 Interestingly, low-income neighborhoods had relatively fewer free than payfor-use facilities, suggesting the possible influence of community tax bases and related
spending policies. Because the distribution of
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facilities is likely to vary across cities, researchers should examine more locations,
focusing on the quality of facilities as well as
access.
lic-private partnerships in metropolitan Atlanta have accelerated the pace of building a
regional network of mixed-use walking and
cycling paths.15
Although market forces primarily govern the
distribution of private recreational facilities,
cities and states could enact tax-based incentives, similar to those often used to spur economic and business development, to locate
private facilities in low-income neighbor-
Active Transportation
Transportation and urban planning researchers have for several decades been examining how a community’s design encourages (or discourages) its citizens to walk and
cycle for transportation (rather than for recreation), though until recently health professionals were unfamiliar with the reseachers’
work.16 Though the original research focus
was directed toward reducing traffic congestion and improving air quality, the findings
have direct implications for physical activity.
Cities and states could enact
tax-based incentives, similar
to those often used to spur
economic and business
development, to locate private
facilities in low-income
neighborhoods.
hoods. Publicly funded parks and trails generally garner strong support.13 Some 90 percent of a national sample of U.S. adults
supported using local government funds for
walking and jogging trails, recreation centers,
and bicycle paths. People may support
spending for recreational facilities because
they believe public open space improves
their quality of life, but building more and
better public recreational facilities could also
promote youth physical activity.14 Also health
care savings could conceivably offset the government’s costs of building such facilities.
Several cities have recently taken steps to improve their parks. Voters in Los Angeles have
approved major bond issues in recent years
to upgrade urban parks. Denver’s public
schools have approved converting school
playgrounds to community parks. And pub92
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Before the middle of the twentieth century,
communities were designed to support convenient pedestrian travel for common activities, such as shopping and going to school.
Indeed, many U.S. towns and cities developed before automobile use became widespread and were pedestrian oriented by necessity. These “traditional” neighborhoods
are characterized by mixed land use, connected streets, and moderate to high density.
Homes, stores, employment centers, and
government services are located near one another, often with multiple uses in the same
multistory building. Streets are laid out in a
grid pattern that creates high levels of connectivity and offers pedestrians direct routes
from place to place. High residential density,
with a preponderance of multifamily dwellings, makes local stores financially viable. For
obvious reasons, these traditional designs are
termed “walkable.”
As the twentieth century progressed and
America’s suburbs began to grow, however, a
variety of policies were set in place to optimize automobile travel. Different forms of
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land use were separated by zoning codes, so
homes and stores were no longer within
walking distance. The street network within
residential areas was disconnected, and long
blocks and many cul-de-sacs made pedestrian
travel all but impossible. Low-traffic residential streets fed into multilane, high-speed arterial streets that presented serious barriers
and dangers to pedestrians. Because the design of suburbs essentially requires the use of
automobiles for all trips, such communities
are often described as “unwalkable,” especially for transportation.
Many studies have examined components of
walkability or compared walking and cycling
for transportation in high- and low-walkable
neighborhoods. They consistently show more
walking and cycling for transportation in
walkable neighborhoods.17 Recent studies
using objective measures of total physical activity have found that residents of high-walkable neighborhoods get one hour more of
physical activity each week and are 2.4 times
more likely to meet physical activity recommendations than residents of low-walkable
neighborhoods.18 Recent reports from the
Transportation Research Board and Institute
of Medicine and the Centers for Disease
Control’s “Guide to Community Preventive
Services” conclude that the design of communities is linked with physical activity, though
causality cannot be established because of the
self-selection problem already noted.19
Though most such research has not focused
on children, several studies suggest that
young people would be more likely to walk to
nearby destinations in traditional neighborhoods. Kevin Krizek, Amanda Birnbaum, and
David Levinson have argued that community
design is relevant to youth physical activity
and have recommended that researchers examine the specific destinations, activities at
those destinations, and travel modes that are
most common for children.20 An Australian
study found that the way people perceive a
neighborhood environment can affect the extent to which children in that neighborhood
walk and cycle to destinations.21 Perceptions
of heavy traffic, a lack of public transit, a lack
of street-crossing aids, the need to cross several roads, and a lack of nearby recreational
facilities were all linked to lower rates of active transportation. One study of adolescents
found that boys were more active when they
lived near pedestrian-oriented shopping
areas.22 In an unexpected finding, girls were
more active when streets were less connected, suggesting that low-traffic residential
streets and cul-de-sacs may be play areas for
some young people.23 Researchers should
also look into how community design variables may operate differently for children,
adolescents, and adults.
Several investigators have examined how
community design relates to the weight status of adults. Four studies have documented
lower body mass index (BMI) or reduced risk
of overweight and obesity in people living in
more walkable areas.24 The one study focusing on adolescents, however, found no link
between neighborhood environment and
BMI, so it would be premature to draw any
final conclusions.25
Walking and cycling to school are of particular
interest because both require substantial energy expenditures on a daily basis.26 And, indeed, studies have found that children who
walk to school are more physically active than
those who travel to school by car, though we
could locate none linking walking with weight
status.27 However, active commuting rates are
low, ranging from only 5 to 14 percent.28
Low-walkable suburban development patterns, such as the lack of sidewalks, long disV O L . 1 6 / N O. 1 / S P R I N G 2 0 0 6
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tances to schools, and the need to cross busy
streets with fast-moving traffic, appear to create barriers to active commuting to school.29
The simple fact is that more children walk to
school in neighborhoods with sidewalks.30 An
evaluation of the Marin County, California,
Safe Routes to Schools program that combined promotional activities with built environment changes—more sidewalks and improved street crossings—found a 64 percent
increase in walking and a 114 percent increase in cycling to school.31 And an evaluation of statewide investments in sidewalks,
crosswalks, and bike lanes in ten California
schools found that 15 percent of parents of
children who passed the improvements on
their way to school reported their children
walked or cycled more.32 The Robert Wood
Johnson Foundation’s Active Living Leadership program has documented initiatives
across the United States at the city, county,
and state levels that are designed to create
built environments that make it easy for people to be physically active for transportation
and recreation purposes.33
With pedestrian injuries a major cause of
childhood injuries and deaths, parents are
understandably concerned about traffic
safety.34 Priority should thus be placed on designing roads, sidewalks, and crosswalks that
make it safe for children to walk and cycle.
The need for greater investment is clear.
Rates of pedestrian death and injury are
vastly higher in the United States than in
Western European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, where extensive
networks of protected cycling and pedestrian
lanes, along with laws that make drivers
rather than pedestrians or cyclists liable in
accidents, have dramatically improved pedestrian safety.35 It is true that the development
of safe sidewalks, crosswalks, and bike lanes
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THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
will not increase active commuting among
children whose homes are too distant from
their schools or who are driven to school to
suit their parents’ work schedules. However,
the evidence suggests that rates of active
commuting can be modified through environmental interventions.
Sedentary Behavior
Sedentary recreational behaviors, such as
watching television and videos, using computers, and playing video games, are important parts of young people’s daily lives. They
are also risk factors for obesity in youth, and
reducing such behaviors is another strategy
for preventing childhood obesity.36 Research
is beginning to document connections between the built environment and sedentary
behaviors. Without safe places to play near
home, for example, children may spend
more time being inactive indoors. Likewise,
heavy traffic reduces the likelihood of children’s walking and may thus keep children
indoors, where they remain sedentary.37
Time spent riding in a car is associated with a
risk of overweight in adults, and residents of
low-walkable neighborhoods spend more
time driving, so community design is likely to
have a similar effect on children.38 These
and other hypothesized associations between
children’s sedentary behavior and community design need to be more closely
examined.
Strategies for Change
Making the multiple environmental changes
supported most consistently by the limited
but rapidly expanding evidence will require
leadership from many sectors.39 The
strongest evidence links access to recreational facilities and programs with child and
adolescent physical activity. Recreation departments in local and state governments are
a primary interest group for intervention in
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this area. They could promote physical activity among youth of all ages by designing and
outfitting parks to provide diverse opportunities for popular physical activities, ensuring
equitable distribution of recreational facilities, and emphasizing physical activity over
other programs. Because achieving these
goals may require increased funding, government leaders could be targeted for advocacy.
The Cleveland Parks Department could be a
model for other cities. As another possible
model, the National Recreation and Park Association has partnered with the National
Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to develop,
evaluate, and disseminate the Hearts N’
Parks program across the nation.40
Commercial groups, such as dance and martial arts studios, and community organizations, such as youth sports leagues, churches,
and after-school programs, all manage or interact with places for youth physical activity.
Such groups could boost physical activity in
children of all skill and income levels. Youth
groups could use these facilities for their social and recreational programs, using slidingscale fees to increase access for low-income
youth. Increasing physical activity opportunities for low-income youth is a priority, because these children have few options. Providing tax breaks for commercial physical
activity providers, such as dance studios and
health clubs, to build facilities in low-income
areas is a strategy worth exploring.
Since 1990, the federal government has
made transportation funds available for
pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure. State
and local transportation funds support sidewalks, trails, traffic calming, and crosswalks.
Safe Routes to Schools construction funding
is available from the U.S. Department of
Transportation and from the transportation
departments of California and a few other
states. Organized advocacy, however, may be
needed to shift priorities within transportation departments to ensure adequate funding
of pedestrian and bicycle facilities.
Creating the mixed-use, highly connected
communities found to be associated with
more physical activity requires changes in
zoning codes and development regulations.
Such organizations as Congress for the New
Urbanism and Smart Growth America are
Priority should thus be placed
on designing roads,
sidewalks, and crosswalks
that make it safe for children
to walk and cycle.
promoting these reforms.41 To improve the
comfort and safety of pedestrians and bicyclists, changes are needed to improve road
design guidelines. The “complete streets”
concept would make all streets suitable for
pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists.42 Subsequent research must determine whether
walkable neighborhoods and complete
streets are health-promoting for youth as well
as adults. However, many initiatives are
under way nationwide to advocate for policy
changes that will make environments more
supportive of physical activity. They should
be carefully evaluated.
The Built Environment
and Nutrition
The nutrition environment is widely believed
to contribute to the epidemic of childhood
and adult obesity in the United States and
globally.43 Research on nutrition environments is less advanced than that on physical
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activity environments, though several studies
have examined schools as sources of food and
found, for example, that the availability of
fruits and vegetables in school lunches is
linked with youngsters’ overall consumption
of fruits and vegetables.44 (See the article in
this volume by Mary Story, Karen Kaphingst,
and Simone French for more details on nutrition in schools.) Few researchers have explored how other neighborhood environments
may affect children’s eating patterns, and even
The obesity epidemic makes
it essential to improve our
understanding of the effect of
food environments on
children as rapidly as
possible.
fewer have looked into their possible links
with childhood obesity. Thus we draw mainly
from research on neighborhoods in relation to
adults’ dietary behaviors. The obesity epidemic makes it essential to improve our understanding of the effect of food environments on children as rapidly as possible.
Several aspects of the broad nutrition environment in the United States and other industrialized countries may help explain the
increasing prevalence of childhood obesity.
Cost concerns and time pressures often lead
parents and their children to rely on convenience foods and fast foods. The increasing
popularity of dining out over the past two
decades has raised the proportion of nutrients consumed away from home. Because
convenience foods and restaurant meals are
typically higher in calories and fat and lower
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THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
in valuable nutrients than meals prepared at
home, frequent consumption of such food increases the chances of obesity in children and
adolescents as well as in adults.45 A lack of access to and the high cost of fruits, vegetables,
and other nutritious foods may keep children
from consuming them. Expanding portion
sizes also appear to be contributing to the
obesity epidemic.46
Parents and school administrators are usually
called on to provide more healthful foods to
children. Evidence indicates, however, that
there is a great deal of support for community-level policies that affect local food environments. In a recent survey in California, 50
percent of respondents rated their neighborhoods as being only fair, poor, or very poor in
offering healthful food for children, with residents of large cities most likely to give negative ratings.47 Eighty-seven percent of respondents favored requiring fast-food and
chain restaurants to post nutritional information, and 46 percent favored limiting the
number of fast-food restaurants in a community.48 Respondents generally favored a community approach to reducing childhood obesity rather than leaving it to individual
children and families. They rated parents,
health care providers, and schools as more
important than churches and faith-based organizations in helping to reduce childhood
obesity, although relatively more African
Americans and Latinos favored a major
church role.49
Is the consumers’ perception that childhood
obesity can be altered through changes in the
nutrition environment supported by evidence? Though the literature to date is limited, diverse studies support the principle
that nutrition environments may be important influences on eating behavior and may
help explain disparities in behavior and dis-
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ease. The available research on nutrition environments outside schools and homes is
based on concepts and empirical data from
the fields of public health, health psychology,
consumer psychology, and urban planning. It
falls generally under two headings: community nutrition environments, which include
the number, type, and location of food outlets, and consumer nutrition environments,
which cover the availability and cost of, as
well as information about, healthful and less
healthful foods inside those food outlets. The
distinction is important because each could
have broad effects on child health, and the
opportunities for modifying each can be
quite different.
Community Nutrition Environments
In the community nutrition environment,
stores and restaurants are the most numerous
food outlets. Accessibility can include large
issues, such as whether and to what extent
these outlets are located in certain communities, as well as such smaller issues as whether
they have drive-through windows and what
their hours of operation are. Other food
sources, such as cafeterias in schools, work
sites, churches, and health care facilities, are
considered “organizational nutrition environments,” although the nonschool sources may
be more influential for adults than for children and youth.
The community nutrition environment may
explain some of the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities in nutrition and health,
such as the increasing prevalence of overweight in low-income children.50 Supermarkets, for example, are less common in lowerincome and minority neighborhoods than in
other neighborhoods.51 And recent evidence
links access to supermarkets with such
indicators of healthful eating as fruit and
vegetable intake among African American
adults, household fruit consumption, and a
diet quality index for pregnancy.52
Evidence related to restaurants is intriguing
but less consistent than that related to stores.
A study in New Orleans found higher fastfood restaurant density in minority and
lower-income neighborhoods, and a study in
Australia found that people living in poorer
areas had twice the exposure to these restaurants.53 A state-level analysis in the United
States found only a modest link between obesity and the prevalence of fast-food restaurants: the density of such restaurants accounted for only 6 percent of the variance in
state obesity rates out of a total of 70 percent
explained by a model that included many
variables.54 In another Australian study, the
availability of take-away food and restaurants
was not linked with obesity.55 And in one of
the only studies known to explore community
nutrition environments and children, overweight was not linked with proximity to fastfood restaurants among urban low-income
preschoolers.56
Consumer Nutrition Environments
Data on consumer nutrition environments,
by contrast, reflect what consumers encounter within and around a store or restaurant, including the availability of healthful
choices, price, promotions, placement, and
nutritional information. Price is an influential
feature of the nutrition environment. A study
of why Americans eat what they do found
that cost was the second most important factor, behind taste; convenience was ranked
fourth, just after nutrition.57
The availability of healthful foods is also important. Some healthful foods, such as low-fat
dairy products and fruits and vegetables, are
less available and of poorer quality in minority
and lower-income areas. Three studies have
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documented that disadvantaged neighborhoods have a proportionally lower availability
of healthful options and produce of poorer
quality than do more affluent and white
neighborhoods.58 A study in Los Angeles
compared healthful food options and food
preparation at restaurants in poorer neighborhoods and at restaurants in higher-income
neighborhoods and found fewer healthful
menu selections in the lower-income areas.59
Most low-income consumers
had access to the healthier
substitutes but at significantly
greater cost than the less
healthful options.
A recent study compared the availability and
cost of a standard “market basket” of foods
from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s
Thrifty Food Plan for low-income consumers
with a market basket of healthier foods, such
as whole wheat bread and lean ground beef.
Most low-income consumers had access to
the healthier substitutes but at significantly
greater cost than the less healthful options.60
Few studies have examined the connection
between consumer nutrition environments
and eating behaviors. Allen Cheadle and several colleagues found positive links between
the availability of healthful (low-fat and highfiber) products at the grocery store and individuals’ consumption of these foods.61 Follow-up surveys two years later, however,
found that changes in food availability made
relatively little difference to individuals’ food
consumption over time.62 Researchers must
develop better measures to use grocery store
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THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
surveys to track community-level dietary
changes over time.
Indeed, to better understand in general how
the nutrition environment affects eating behavior, analysts must continue to improve
their measures of how consumer nutrition
environments vary. In a food availability
study completed in 1990, Cheadle and his
colleagues included calculations of the percentage of shelf space used for healthful food
options, such as low-fat milk and cheese and
lean meats, but such measures may be difficult to apply in contemporary grocery stores,
which are now larger and more varied in layout than stores were only a decade ago.63
Other opportunities for consumer measures
in stores include assessing product promotion
and placement related to children, such as
displaying energy-dense foods and placing
unhealthful products on lower shelves. The
complexity of the research area is clear, but
given the public health imperative to improve eating behaviors, it must be a high priority to enhance the public’s understanding
of the food environments’ impact on their
eating habits.
An important omission in these studies is that
none makes it possible to evaluate the relative contribution of environmental and
demographic, psychological, and social factors to diet and obesity. Such multilevel studies are critically necessary to better inform
policymakers, researchers, and communities
about the potential of environmental change
strategies to make a genuine difference in the
childhood obesity problem.
Strategies for Change
Although researchers are well informed
about which eating patterns will help avoid or
reduce obesity, they as yet know relatively little about how environmental change can af-
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fect eating patterns. Nevertheless, we can
suggest promising strategies, many of which
have already been shown to be feasible.
Some of these strategies come from recent
online and newspaper reports; although they
are innovative, they have usually not been
carefully evaluated. Others come from previously reported efforts to promote healthful
eating, such as reducing fat intake or eating
more fruits and vegetables. They provide interesting case examples, though, again, most
have not been rigorously evaluated.64
At the community nutrition level, increasing
the number of supermarkets (and the variety
of fresh produce they sell) in low-income and
minority neighborhoods could lead to healthier eating behaviors. Several cities have
shown that it is feasible to increase the presence of supermarkets in disadvantaged areas
through community advocacy and political
action.65 Providing transportation to food
sources for poor families who do not own cars
appears to be both feasible and popular with
shoppers. Locating farmers’ markets in lowincome neighborhoods has also been well received, although whether the markets affect
children’s fruit and vegetable consumption or
energy balance remains unclear.66
The Urban Nutrition Initiative in West
Philadelphia combines the physical activity of
gardening with the promotion of healthy eating. This university-community partnership
has been recognized as a model healthpromotion effort.67 Similar grassroots efforts
under the umbrella of community-supported
agriculture connect local farmers and consumers to increase the production and consumption of fresh produce.68
Zoning and tax policies can also improve the
types and quality of food sold at neighborhood stores. Some restaurant chains, includ-
ing fast-food restaurants, are increasing their
menu of healthful foods by offering side orders of salad or vegetables as part of “combo
meals.”69 A Produce for Better Health Foundation study is exploring opportunities to implement healthful menu changes in fast-food
and fast-casual restaurant chains and family
style restaurants.
Several metropolitan areas have convened forums to brainstorm ways to address their regional childhood obesity problems, with
changes to the built environment among the
options. Chicago leaders have come together
in the Consortium to Lower Obesity in
Chicago Children to identify local solutions
with special attention to low-income communities and “urban re-design.”70 California
health care organizations are promoting
more healthful food environments in workplaces, hospitals, and clinics in models that
might be adopted regionwide.71 And in San
Diego County, a community forum is planning to combat childhood obesity by, among
other things, promoting better food labeling
and by creating partnerships between the
school system and farmers’ markets.72
Common Issues for Physical
Activity and Nutrition
Few studies simultaneously address both
physical activity and nutrition within neighborhoods, though such work could advance
understanding of how the built environment
influences childhood obesity. Studies linking
community design and adult weight raise the
possibility that land use could work through
both physical activity and eating.73 Not only
are people more physically active in traditional neighborhoods, such neighborhoods
may also provide more convenient access to
healthful foods or less dominance of fast-food
restaurants.74 Zoning laws can be used to require certain forms of destinations within
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walking distance of most residences, to limit
the number of convenience stores and fastfood restaurants, or to encourage farmers’
markets and family style, sit-down, or “slowfood,” restaurants.
Because community design is related to walking for transportation and because food outlets are among the most common destinations for walkers, incentives for offering more
healthful choices at food stores could affect
both healthful eating and physical activity.75
Neighborhoods that have community gardens can promote both physical activity and
healthful eating.76 Although urban planners
are primarily motivated to reduce sprawl because of concerns about traffic congestion,
air pollution, the cost of new infrastructure,
and a lack of active transportation, reducing
sprawl would also preserve agricultural areas
near cities and thus maintain farmers’ abilities to provide local produce.77 In turn, more
locally grown produce could reduce the cost
of getting healthful foods to market and
could support local economic development.
Drive-through windows at fast-food restaurants make food purchasing more convenient
and may encourage consumers to eat while
they drive. Drive-through windows are also
symptomatic of the type of building design
that discourages pedestrian activity. Restricting drive-through windows might improve
both eating and physical activity. The politics
of such restrictions could be complex, but
demonstration projects could test how acceptable they are and what effects they might have.
Researchers hypothesize that social cohesion
is higher in traditional neighborhoods, where
people are more likely to see and talk with
their neighbors while walking.78 In socially
cohesive neighborhoods, parents may also be
more likely to feel comfortable letting their
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children play outdoors and walk or cycle to
nearby stores for minor food-shopping errands. Socially cohesive communities may
also be better advocates for more physical activity opportunities and for better access to
healthful foods.
Problems with crime and traffic safety are
likely to counter some of the benefits of traditional neighborhoods. Though we could locate
no data on this topic, parental concerns about
safety could keep children from taking advantage of walkable neighborhoods, recreational
facilities, and healthful food sources such as
community gardens and farmers’ markets.
Parents who are concerned about risks of violence or abduction are likely to act on those
fears, regardless of real crime rates or an absolute risk of abduction. Likewise, parents
who are concerned about heavy or fast vehicular traffic are likely to restrict a child’s movements. Both types of concerns may be more
prevalent and have greater impact among lowincome families, who may not have cars to
transport children to recreational and healthful eating opportunities. Researchers should
focus on both objectively assessed and perceived safety issues as they relate to physical
activity, eating, and built environments.
Lessons Learned and Challenges
Changing the built environment to increase
children’s physical activity for recreation and
transportation, to improve access to healthful
foods, and to reduce access to less healthful
foods can help provide long-term solutions to
the childhood obesity epidemic. Unlike the
often-transitory effects of motivational and
educational approaches to addressing obesity,
changes in behavior prompted by changes in
the built environment should be long lasting.
Although research generally links aspects of
the built environment with physical activity
and eating behaviors, most data are from
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studies of adults, and findings to date are unable to pinpoint which specific variables
would have the greatest effect on childhood
eating, physical activity, and obesity. Nevertheless, we can draw some lessons from the
studies to date and offer some tentative policy recommendations. Given the urgency of
the childhood obesity epidemic, we cannot
wait for optimal evidence and must instead
base actions on the best available evidence.79
Children of all ages need and want places to
play. To support the diversity of their physical
activities, they need many types of recreational facilities, both public and private,
near their homes and schools. To remedy the
relative scarcity of such facilities in lowincome neighborhoods, policymakers must
ensure that these facilities are more equitably
distributed.
Adults who live in walkable communities are
more physically active and less likely to be
overweight than those who do not. A few
studies suggest that adolescents living in
walkable neighborhoods may be more active
and more likely to walk to school than their
counterparts in unwalkable communities, but
more studies of youth are needed. Combining physical improvements to enhance the
safety of routes to school with activities that
promote walking and cycling appears to increase active commuting to school. Improving the safety of roads, sidewalks, and crosswalks may reduce parental concerns about
traffic danger and encourage more active
transportation among children.
Low-income and minority neighborhoods not
only have less access to healthful foods but
also may face higher food costs. Evidence
linking access to healthful foods with dietary
intake in children is limited; more studies
should be a high priority. But enough studies
document inequitable access to healthful
foods to justify corrective efforts. With obesity rates among low-income children and
adults much higher than those among wellto-do citizens, there is a strong rationale for
grassroots efforts, public-private partnerships, and even public subsidies of healthful
food sources in targeted areas.80 Increasing
the number of healthful, affordable food
choices in a variety of food outlets is a complementary strategy that may be largely
Combining physical
improvements to enhance the
safety of routes to school with
activities that promote
walking and cycling appears
to increase active commuting
to school.
driven by commercial considerations. In this
instance, public pressure and consumer demand can make a difference.
Challenges of Translating Research
into Change
Conducting research on built environments
and childhood obesity and implementing
changes based on the findings will be challenging. Researchers will probably not find a
single “smoking gun.” It is more likely that
many built environment variables will show a
strong cumulative effect on diet, physical activity, and weight status in children than that
any single variable will have a dominant influence. Further, different environmental variables are likely to be operating for children of
different ages and genders as well as for
those of different racial, ethnic, and cultural
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groups and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Thus changing the built environment in all
the ways needed to combat obesity may be a
complex task. Research is further complicated by the paucity of reliable and valid
measures of food and physical activity environmental factors. And changing the built
environment alone is unlikely to induce large
changes in eating habits and physical activity.
Educational programs, promotional activities, incentives, and policies will all be necessary to support the physical changes.
Making so many changes in the built environment would affect not only many government
departments at all levels, but also the food
industry, the real estate industry, many transportation-related industries, recreation-related
industries, and entertainment industries.
Some of these industries will actively oppose
policies that threaten their current operating
practices.81 Stimulating health-oriented policy
change in government agencies not normally
focused on health will require creative and
sustained effort. Public support for changing
the built environment to combat childhood
obesity has seldom been studied but may be
decisive in adopting and implementing both
promising and evidence-based policies.82
Enhancements to encourage more active
commuting in communities and potential
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subsidies for healthful foods may well be
costly. Those costs must be better understood
and balanced against the costs of continuing
current policies that may be driving the youth
obesity epidemic. Careful economic analyses
must inform policy decisions.83
Making major changes in government policy
and industry practice will require a substantial investment in advocacy that will in turn
require people, organization, and funding.
Although many organizations have interests
consistent with the built environment’s
changes already noted, their capacity is not
sufficient to achieve even the initial policy
changes supported by existing data. Continuous evaluation will be required to learn
whether the changes that are made lead to
the expected outcomes and contribute to reducing the obesity epidemic.
Finally, there is an urgent need for the next
generation of studies on how the built environment affects youth physical activity, eating, and obesity. Because simply identifying
built environment risk factors is not sufficient
to create change, advancing the science of
policy change is also a high priority. A new research emphasis must be to improve the understanding of policy change processes of
greatest relevance to youth physical activity,
eating, and obesity.
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Notes
1. Kelly R. Evenson, Amy H. Herring, and Sara L. Huston, “Evaluating Change in Physical Activity with the
Building of a Multi-Use Trail,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 28 (2S2) (2005): 177–85.
2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Healthy People 2010 (2000); Jeffrey P. Koplan and
William H. Dietz, “Caloric Imbalance and Public Health Policy,” Journal of the American Medical Association 282 (2000): 1579–81; World Health Organization, Obesity: Preventing and Managing the Global Epidemic (Geneva,1998); Jeffrey P. Koplan, Catharyn T. Liverman, and Vivica I. Kraak, eds., Preventing Childhood Obesity: Health in the Balance (Washington: National Academies Press, 2004.)
3. Transportation Research Board–Institute of Medicine, Does the Built Environment Influence Physical Activity? Examining the Evidence (Washington: National Academies Press, 2005); Gregory W. Heath and
others, “The Effectiveness of Urban Design and Land Use and Transport Policies and Practices to Increase
Physical Activity: A Systematic Review,” Journal of Physical Activity and Health (forthcoming).
4. James F. Sallis, Judith J. Prochaska, and Wendell C. Taylor, “A Review of Correlates of Physical Activity of
Children and Adolescents,” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 32 (2000): 963–75.
5. Gregory J. Norman and others, “Community Design and Recreational Environmental Correlates of Adolescent Physical Activity and BMI,” Journal of Physical Activity and Health (forthcoming).
6. Wendy R. Hoefer and others, “Parental Provision of Transportation for Adolescent Physical Activity,”
American Journal of Preventive Medicine 21 (2002): 48–51.
7. James F. Sallis and others, “Correlates of Physical Activity at Home in Mexican-American and AngloAmerican Preschool Children,” Health Psychology 12 (1993): 390–98.
8. Sallis, Prochaska, and Taylor, “A Review of Correlates” (see note 4).
9. James F. Sallis and others, “Correlates of Physical Activity in a National Sample of Girls and Boys in Grades
Four through Twelve,” Health Psychology 18 (1999): 410–15; James F. Sallis and others, “Correlates of Vigorous Physical Activity for Children in Grades 1 through 12: Comparing Parent-Reported and Objectively
Measured Physical Activity,” Pediatric Exercise Science 14 (2002): 30–44.
10. Hillary L. Burdette and Robert C. Whitaker, “Neighborhood Playgrounds, Fast-Food Restaurants, and
Crime: Relationships to Overweight in Low-Income Preschool Children,” Preventive Medicine 38 (2004):
57–63.
11. Nancy Humpel, Owen N. Neville, and Evie Leslie, “Environmental Factors Associated with Adults’ Participation in Physical Activity: A Review,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 22 (2002): 188–99.
12. Paul A. Estabrooks, Rebecca E. Lee, and Nancy C. Gyurcsik, “Resources for Physical Activity Participation: Does Availability and Accessibility Differ by Neighborhood Socioeconomic Status?” Annals of Behavioral Medicine 25 (2004): 100–04; Linda M. Powell, S. Slater, and Frank J. Chaloupka, “The Relationship
between Community Physical Activity Settings and Race, Ethnicity, and Socioeconomic Status,” EvidenceBased Preventive Medicine 1 (2004): 135–44.
13. Ross C. Brownson and others, “Environmental and Policy Determinants of Physical Activity in the United
States,” American Journal of Public Health 91 (2001): 1995–2003.
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14. Geoffrey C. Godbey and others, “Contributions of Leisure Studies and Recreation and Park Management
Research to the Active Living Agenda,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 28 (2S2) (2005): 150–58.
15. Los Angeles park bond info: http://eng.lacity.org/projects/prop_k/aboutus.htm (accessed October 18,
2005); Denver school playground conversions: Lois Brink and Bambi Yost, “Transforming Inner-City
School Grounds: Lessons from Learning Landscapes,” Children, Youth, and Environments 14, no. 1 (2004).
16. Lawrence D. Frank, Peter O. Engelke, and Thomas L. Schmid, Health and Community Design: The Impact of the Built Environment on Physical Activity (Washington: Island, 2003); Brian E. Saelens, James F.
Sallis, and Lawrence D. Frank, “Environmental Correlates of Walking and Cycling: Findings from the
Transportation, Urban Design, and Planning Literatures,” Annals of Behavioral Medicine 25 (2003): 80–91.
17. Saelens, Sallis, and Frank, “Environmental Correlates of Walking and Cycling” (see note 16).
18. Brian E. Saelens and others, “Neighborhood-Based Differences in Physical Activity: An Environment
Scale Evaluation,” American Journal of Public Health 93 (2003): 1552–58; Lawrence D. Frank and others,
“Linking Objectively Measured Physical Activity with Objectively Measured Urban Form: Findings from
SMARTRAQ,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 28 (2S2) (2005): 117–25.
19. Transportation Research Board–Institute of Medicine, Does the Built Environment Influence Physical Activity? (see note 3); Heath and others, “The Effectiveness of Urban Design” (see note 3).
20. Kevin J. Krizek, Amanda S. Birnbaum, and David M. Levinson, “A Schematic for Focusing on Youth in Investigations of Community Design and Physical Activity,” American Journal of Health Promotion 19 (2004):
33–38.
21. Anna Timperio and others, “Perceptions about the Local Neighborhood and Walking and Cycling among
Children,” Preventive Medicine 38 (2004): 39–47.
22. Norman and others, “Community Design and Recreational Environmental Correlates” (see note 5).
23. Ibid.
24. Saelens and others, “Neighborhood-Based Differences” (see note 18); Billie Giles-Corti and others, “Environmental and Lifestyle Factors Associated with Overweight and Obesity in Perth, Australia,” American
Journal of Health Promotion 18 (2003): 93–102; Reid Ewing and others, “Relationship between Urban
Sprawl and Physical Activity, Obesity, and Morbidity,” American Journal of Health Promotion 18 (2003):
47–57; Lawrence D. Frank, Martin A. Andresen, and Thomas L. Schmid, “Obesity Relationships with
Community Design, Physical Activity, and Time Spent in Cars,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine
27 (2004): 87–96.
25. Norman and others, “Community Design and Recreational Environmental Correlates” (see note 5).
26. Catrine Tudor-Locke, Barbara E. Ainsworth, and Barry M. Popkin, “Active Commuting to School: An
Overlooked Source of Children’s Physical Activity?” Sports Medicine 31 (2001): 309–13.
27. Ashley R. Cooper and others, “Commuting to School: Are Children Who Walk More Physically Active?”
American Journal of Preventive Medicine 25 (2003): 273–76.
28. John R. Sirard and others, “Prevalence of Active Commuting at Urban and Suburban Elementary Schools
in Columbia, SC,” American Journal of Public Health 95 (2005): 236–37; Centers for Disease Control and
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Prevention, “Barriers to Children Walking and Biking to School—United States, 1999,” Journal of the
American Medical Association 288 (2002): 1343–44.
29. Howard Frumkin, Lawrence Frank, and Richard Jackson, Urban Sprawl and Public Health: Designing,
Planning, and Building for Healthy Communities (Washington: Island, 2004).
30. Reid Ewing, W. Schroeer, and W. Greene, “School Location and Student Travel: Analysis of Factors Affecting Mode Choice,” Transportation Research Record 1895 (2004): 55–63.
31. Catherine E. Staunton, Deb Hubsmith, and Wendi Kallins, “Promoting Safe Walking and Biking to School:
The Marin County Success Story,” American Journal of Public Health 93 (2003): 1431–34.
32. Marlon G. Boarnet and others, “Evaluation of the California Safe Routes to School Legislation: Urban
Form Changes and Children’s Active Transportation to School,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine
28 (2S2) (2005): 134–40.
33. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (www.activelivingleadership.org [accessed October 18, 2005]).
34. D. C. Grossman, “The History of Injury Control and the Epidemiology of Child and Adolescent Injuries,”
Future of Children 10, no. 1 (2000): 23–52; Transportation Research Board–Institute of Medicine, Does
the Built Environment Influence Physical Activity? (see note 3).
35. John Pucher and Lewis Dijkstra, “Promoting Safe Walking and Cycling to Improve Public Health: Lessons
from the Netherlands and Germany,” American Journal of Public Health 93 (2003): 1509–16.
36. Brian E. Saelens, “Helping Individuals Reduce Sedentary Behavior,” in Obesity: Etiology, Assessment,
Treatment, and Prevention, edited by Ross E. Anderson (Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics, 2003), pp.
217–38.
37. Timperio and others, “Perceptions about the Local Neighborhood” (see note 21).
38. Frank, Andresen, and Schmid, “Obesity Relationships with Community Design” (see note 24).
39. James F. Sallis, Adrian Bauman, and Michael Pratt, “Environmental and Policy Interventions to Promote
Physical Activity,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 15 (1998): 379–97.
40. www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/prof/heart/obesity/hrt_n_pk/ (October 18, 2005).
41. The website for the Congress for the New Urbanism is www.cnu.org. The website for Smart Growth America is www.smartgrowthamerica.org.
42. See www.americabikes.org/bicycleaccommodation_factsheet_completestreets.asp. [October 18, 2005].
43. Karen Glanz and others, “Healthy Nutrition Environments: Concepts and Measures,” American Journal of
Health Promotion 19 (2005): 330–33.
44. Simone A. French and G. Stables, “Environmental Interventions to Promote Vegetable and Fruit Consumption among Youth in School Settings,” Preventive Medicine 37 (2003): 593–610; Leslie A. Lytle and J.
A. Fulkerson, “Assessing the Dietary Environment: Examples from School-Based Nutrition Interventions,”
Public Health Nutrition 5 (2002): 893–99; Mary Story, Diane Neumark-Sztainer, and Simone French, “Individual and Environmental Influences on Adolescent Eating Behaviors,” Journal of the American Dietetic
Association 102 (2002): S40–S51.
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45. Bing-Hwan Lin, Elizabeth Frazao, and Joanne Guthrie, Away-from-Home Foods Increasingly Important
to Quality of American Diet, Agriculture Information Bulletin no. 749 (Washington: U.S. Department of
Agriculture, 1999); Eric A. Finkelstein, Christopher J. Ruhm, and Katherine A. Kosa, “Economic Causes
and Consequences of Obesity,” Annual Review of Public Health 26 (2005): 239–57.
46. Lisa R. Young and Marion Nestle, “The Contribution of Expanding Portion Sizes to the U.S. Obesity Epidemic,” American Journal of Public Health 92 (2002): 246–49.
47. Field Research Corporation, “A Survey of Californians about the Problem of Childhood Obesity” (San
Francisco: The California Endowment, 2003).
48. Ibid.
49. Ibid.
50. Bettylou Sherry and others, “Trends in State-Specific Prevalence of Overweight and Underweight in 2through 4-Year-Old Children from Low-Income Families from 1989 through 2000,” Archives of Pediatric
and Adolescent Medicine 158 (2004): 1116–24.
51. Kimberly Morland and others, “Neighborhood Characteristics Associated with the Location of Food Stores
and Food Service Places,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 22 (2002): 23–29; Shannon N. Zenk
and others, “Neighborhood Racial Composition, Neighborhood Poverty, and the Spatial Accessibility of Supermarkets in Metropolitan Detroit,” American Journal of Public Health 95 (2005): 660–67.
52. Kimberly Morland, Steve Wing, and Ana Diez Roux, “The Contextual Effect of the Local Food Environment on Residents’ Diets: The Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Study,” American Journal of
Public Health 92 (2002): 1761–67; Donald Rose and Rickelle Richards, “Food Store Access and Household
Fruit and Vegetable Use among Participants in the U.S. Food Stamp Program,” Public Health Nutrition 7
(2004): 1081–88; Barbara A. Laraia and others, “Proximity of Supermarkets Is Positively Associated with
Diet Quality Index for Pregnancy,” Preventive Medicine 39 (2004): 869–75.
53. Jason P. Block, Richard A. Scribner, and Karen B. DeSalvo, “Fast Food, Race/Ethnicity, and Income: A Geographic Analysis,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 27 (2004): 211–17; Daniel D. Reidpath and
others, “An Ecological Study of the Relationship between Social and Environmental Determinants of Obesity,” Health and Place 8 (2002): 141–45.
54. Jay Maddock, “The Relationship between Obesity and the Prevalence of Fast-Food Restaurants: StateLevel Analysis,” American Journal of Health Promotion 29 (2004): 137–43.
55. D. Simmons and others, “Choice and Availability of Takeaway and Restaurant Food Is Not Related to the
Prevalence of Adult Obesity in Rural Communities in Australia,” International Journal of Obesity 29
(2005): 703–10.
56. Burdette and Whitaker, “Neighborhood Playgrounds, Fast-Food Restaurants, and Crime” (see note 10).
57. Karen Glanz and others, “Why Americans Eat What They Do: Taste, Nutrition, Cost, Convenience, and
Weight Control as Influences on Food Consumption,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 98
(1998): 1118–26.
58. Howell Wechsler and others, “The Availability of Low-Fat Milk in an Inner-City Latino Community: Implications for Nutrition Education,” American Journal of Public Health 85 (1995): 1690–92; David C. Sloane
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and others, “Improving the Nutritional Resource Environment for Healthy Living through CommunityBased Participatory Research,” Journal of General Internal Medicine 18 (2003): 568–75; Carol R. Horowitz
and others, “Barriers to Buying Healthy Foods for People with Diabetes: Evidence of Environmental Disparities,” American Journal of Public Health 94 (2004): 1549–54.
59. LaVonna B. Lewis and others, “African Americans’ Access to Healthy Food Options in South Los Angeles
Restaurants,” American Journal of Public Health 95 (2005): 668–73.
60. Karen M. Jetter and Diana L. Cassady, “The Availability and Cost of Healthier Food Items,” AIC Issues
Brief, University of California Agricultural Issues Center 29 (2005): 1–6.
61. Allen Cheadle and others, “Community-Level Comparison between the Grocery Store Environment and
Individual Dietary Practices,” Preventive Medicine 20 (1991): 250–61.
62. Allen Cheadle and others, “Can Measures of the Grocery Store Environment Be Used to Track Community-Level Dietary Changes?” Preventive Medicine 22 (1993): 361–72.
63. Allen Cheadle and others, “Evaluating Community-Based Nutrition Programs: Assessing the Reliability of
a Survey of Grocery Store Product Displays,” American Journal of Public Health 80 (1990): 709–11.
64. Leslie Mikkelsen, “The Links between the Neighborhood Food Environment and Child Nutrition” (Oakland, Calif.: Issue paper for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2004); Karen Glanz and Amy Yaroch,
“Strategies for Increasing Fruit and Vegetable Intake in Grocery Stores and Communities: Policy, Pricing,
and Environmental Change,” Preventive Medicine 39 (2004): S75–S80.
65. Karen Glanz and Deanna Hoelscher, “Increasing Fruit and Vegetable Intake by Changing Environments,
Policy, and Pricing: Restaurant-Based Research, Strategies, and Recommendations,” Preventive Medicine
39 (2004): S88–S93.
66. Mikkelsen, “The Links between the Neighborhood Food Environment” (see note 64).
67. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation News Digest: Childhood Obesity, July 15, 2005. (www.rwjf.org/obesity
[August 7, 2005]).
68. www.umassvegetable.org/food_farming_systems/csa/index.html (August 7, 2005).
69. Glanz and Yaroch, “Strategies for Increasing Fruit and Vegetable Intake” (see note 64).
70. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation News Digest: Childhood Obesity, August 5, 2005 (rwjf.org/obesity).
71. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation News Digest: Childhood Obesity, July 15, 2005 (rwjf.org/obesity).
72. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation News Digest: Childhood Obesity, May 27, 2005 (rwjf.org/obesity).
73. Saelens and others, “Neighborhood-Based Differences in Physical Activity” (see note 18); Giles-Corti and
others, “Environmental and Lifestyle Factors” (see note 24); Ewing and others, “Relationship between Urban
Sprawl” (see note 24); Frank, Andresen, and Schmid, “Obesity Relationships with Community Design” (see
note 24).
74. Saelens, Sallis, and Frank, “Environmental Correlates of Walking and Cycling” (see note 16).
75. Frank, Engelke, and Schmid, Health and Community Design (see note 16).
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76. Mikkelsen, “The Links between the Neighborhood Food Environment” (see note 64).
77. Frumkin, Frank, and Jackson, Urban Sprawl and Public Health (see note 29).
78. Frank, Engelke, and Schmid, Health and Community Design (see note 16).
79. Koplan, Liverman, and Kraak, eds., Preventing Childhood Obesity (see note 2).
80. Ibid.
81. Gus Cannon, “Why the Bush Administration and the Global Sugar Industry Are Determined to Demolish
the 2004 WHO Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity, and Health,” Public Health Nutrition 7 (2004):
369–80.
82. Brownson and others, “Environmental and Policy Determinants” (see note 13).
83. Finkelstein, Ruhm, and Kosa, “Economic Causes and Consequences of Obesity” (see note 45).
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The Role of Schools in Obesity Prevention
Mary Story, Karen M. Kaphingst, and Simone French
Summary
Mary Story, Karen Kaphingst, and Simone French argue that U.S. schools offer many opportunities for developing obesity-prevention strategies by providing more nutritious food, offering
greater opportunities for physical activity, and providing obesity-related health services.
Meals at school are available both through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s school breakfast and lunch programs and through “competitive foods” sold à la carte in cafeterias, vending
machines, and snack bars. School breakfasts and school lunches must meet federal nutrition
standards, but competitive foods are exempt from such requirements. And budget pressures
force schools to sell the popular but nutritionally poor foods Г la carte. Public discomfort with
the school food environment is growing. But can schools provide more healthful food options
without losing money? Limited evidence shows that they can.
Although federal nutrition regulations are inadequate, they permit state and local authorities to
impose additional restrictions. And many are doing so. Some states limit sales of nonnutritious
foods, and many large school districts restrict competitive foods.
Several interventions have changed school food environments, for example, by reducing fat
content of food in vending machines and making more fruits and vegetables available. Interventions are just beginning to target the availability of competitive foods.
Other pressures can also compromise schools’ efforts to encourage physical activity. As states
use standardized tests to hold schools and students academically accountable, physical education and recess have become a lower priority. But some states are now mandating and promoting more physical activity in schools. School health services can also help address obesity by
providing screening, health information, and referrals to students, especially low-income students, who are at high risk of obesity, tend to be underinsured, and may not receive health services elsewhere.
www.futureofchildren.org
Mary Story is a professor in the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota, and is
the director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Healthy Eating Research Program. Karen M. Kaphingst is in the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota, and is the deputy director of the RWJF Healthy Eating
Research Program. Simone French is a professor in the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, School of Public Health, University
of Minnesota.
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Mary Story, Karen M. Kaphingst, and Simone French
P
oor diets and physical inactivity
are pushing rates of overweight
and obesity among the nation’s
children to record levels.1 Indeed, since 1960, U.S. childhood
and adolescent overweight prevalence rates
have more than tripled.2 The health risks associated with childhood obesity pose a critical public health challenge for the twentyfirst century.3
Schools can play an important part in a national effort to prevent childhood obesity.
More than 95 percent of American youth
aged five to seventeen are enrolled in school,
and no other institution has as much continuous and intensive contact with children during their first two decades of life. Schools can
promote good nutrition, physical activity, and
healthy weights among children through
healthful school meals and foods, physical
education programs and recess, classroom
health education, and school health services.
In this article we discuss the role of schools in
preventing obesity. We analyze schools’ food
and physical activity environments and examine federal, state, and local policies related to
food and physical activity standards in
schools. We conclude by discussing promising
and innovative obesity-prevention strategies.
Are Obesity, Nutrition, and
Physical Activity Linked with
School Performance?
Some observers have noted a worrisome correlation between weight problems and poor
academic achievement.4 One research study
found that severely overweight children and
adolescents are four times more likely than
their healthy-weight peers to report “impaired school functioning.” Overweight children are also more likely to have abnormal
scores on the Child Behavior Checklist (a
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commonly used measure of children’s behavior problems) and are twice as likely to be
placed in special education and remedial
classes than are children who are not overweight.5 A study involving 11,192 kindergartners found that overweight children had significantly lower math and reading test scores
at the beginning of the year than did their
healthy-weight peers and that these differences persisted into first grade.6 But such
findings must be interpreted with caution.
Because overweight is linked with poor academic performance does not mean that it
causes poor performance. Low academic
achievement can have many underlying
causes, including low socioeconomic status,
lower parental education, poor nutrition, and
parental depression. Overweight should be
considered a marker for poor academic performance and not the cause itself.
Overweight can impair school performance
in many ways, including health-related absenteeism.7 Among the medical conditions
linked with overweight in school-aged children are asthma, joint problems, type 2 diabetes, depression and anxiety, and sleep
apnea.8 Social problems—such as being
teased or bullied—loneliness, or low selfesteem can also affect how well children do
in school.9
Although the evidence that child obesity affects school performance is limited, nutrition
clearly affects academic performance. Poor
nutritional status and hunger interfere with
cognitive function and are associated with
lower academic achievement. Iron deficiency
is linked to shortened attention span, irritability, fatigue, and difficulty with concentration.10 A recent review of studies of breakfast
habits and nutritional status in children and
adolescents found that breakfast consumption may improve cognitive function related
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to memory, test grades, and school attendance.11 Studies have also found that children participating in the federal School
Breakfast Program show increases in daily attendance, class participation, and academic
test scores and decreases in tardiness.12
Research has also recently begun to elucidate
the relationship between physical activity and
student performance at school. Among the
findings are that physical activity programs
help school-aged children develop social
skills, improve mental health, and reduce
risk-taking behaviors.13 Evidence also suggests that short-term cognitive benefits of
physical activity during the school day adequately compensate for time spent away from
other academic areas.14 This evidence suggests that efforts to improve nutrition and increase physical activity in school may have
the twin benefits of reducing obesity and
improving the academic performance of all
children, whether they are at risk of obesity
or not.
The School Food Environment
Not only do most U.S. school-aged children
attend school, they eat a large share of their
daily food while they are there—estimates
range from 19 to 50 percent or higher.15
Food is typically available through the U.S.
Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) school
breakfast and lunch programs and through
“competitive foods” sold in vending machines, as à la carte offerings in the cafeteria,
and at snack bars, school stores, and fundraisers.16
National School Breakfast
and Lunch Programs
Ninety-nine percent of all public schools and
83 percent of all public and private schools
participate in the National School Lunch
Program.17 The School Breakfast Program is
Table 1. Select Federal Child Nutrition
Programs, 2003–04 School Year
School Breakfast Program
Average daily student participation
8,680,178
Free and reduced-price
7,118,313
Paid
1,561,865
Increase in free and reduced-price participation
in past 10 years
41.9 percent
Number of schools participating
Federal reimbursement
78,118
$1,740,181,232
School Lunch Program
Average daily student participation
28,426,911
Free and reduced-price
16,508,440
Paid
11,918,471
Number of schools participating
Federal reimbursement
98,375
$6,527,731,630
Summer Food Service Program (July 2003)
Average daily July participation
1,791,821
Number of sites
29,193
Federal funding
$215,805,038
Sources: Food Research and Action Center, “State of the States,
2005: A Profile of Food and Nutrition Programs across the Nation”
(www.frac.org. [October 28, 2005]); USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), “Nutrition Assistance Programs” (www.fns.usda.gov/
fns/ [October 28, 2005]).
offered in 78 percent of the schools that offer
the lunch program.18 On an average school
day, about 60 percent of children in schools
offering the lunch program eat school lunch,
and about 37 percent of children in schools in
the breakfast program eat school breakfast
(see table 1).
Meals in both programs must meet federally
defined nutrition standards (see box) for
schools to be eligible for federal subsidies,
both cash and commodities. Federal school
lunches must provide approximately onethird of the recommended dietary allowance
(RDA) for key nutrients; school breakfasts
offer one-fourth of the RDA. A 1998–99 national study found that federal school lunches
generally meet standards for the key nutrients protein, vitamins A and C, calcium, and
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Summary of Regulations and Funding for the National School
Breakfast and National School Lunch Programs
Regulations
School meals must meet the applicable recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommend that no more than 30 percent of an individual’s calories come from fat
and less than 10 percent from saturated fat. School lunches must provide one-third of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein, calcium, iron, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and calories.
School breakfasts must provide one-fourth of these RDAs. Local school food authorities decide
which specific foods to serve and how to prepare them.
“Foods of minimal nutritional value” as defined by federal regulations cannot be sold in school
food service areas during the meal periods. Four categories of prohibited foods are soda pop,
water ices, chewing gum, and certain candies, including hard candy, jellies and gums, marshmallow candies, fondant, licorice, spun candy, and candy-coated popcorn.
Funding
The National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs are entitlement programs. As long as
they follow regulations, enrolled public and nonprofit private schools are guaranteed funds to offer
free or reduced-price meals. Both programs have a three-tiered system to determine the reimbursement rates. Children in families at or below 130 percent of the poverty line receive free
meals. Children in families between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty line receive reducedprice meals. Children in families above 185 percent of the poverty line receive a small per-meal
subsidy for full-price (“paid”) meals, as set by the school.
The per-meal subsidies are indexed for inflation. For the 2005–06 school year, the per-meal reimbursement rate for school breakfasts is $1.27 for free breakfast, $0.97 for reduced-price
breakfast, and $0.23 for the paid breakfast. Schools where at least 40 percent of the lunches
served during the second preceding school year were free or reduced price may qualify for extra
“severe need” school breakfast reimbursements if their costs exceed the standard federal reimbursement. For severe need, the reimbursement rate for free breakfast is $1.51, that for reduced-price breakfast is $1.21, and that for paid breakfast is $0.23.
For school lunches, the reimbursement rate for free lunch is $2.32, the rate for reduced-price
lunch is $1.92, and the rate for paid lunch is $0.22. For schools where 60 percent or more
lunches served during the second preceding school year were free or reduced price, the reimbursement rate for free lunch is $2.34, the rate for reduced-price lunch is $1.94, and the rate for
paid lunch is $0.24. In addition to these rates, institutions may also receive 17.5 cents in commodities (or cash in lieu of commodities) as additional assistance for each lunch served.
Sources: Code of Federal Regulations 210.10; Code of Federal Regulations 220.8; Code of Federal Regulations appendix B to Part 210;
Federal Register 70, no. 136 (July 18, 2005): 41196–200; Food Research and Action Center, Income Guidelines and Reimbursement
Rates for the Federal Child Nutrition Programs (www.frac.org/pdf/rates.PDF [August 15, 2005]).
Note: Reimbursement rates are higher for Alaska and Hawaii.
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iron.19 The average calorie content of elementary school lunches was somewhat higher
than the RDA while that of secondary school
lunches was slightly lower.20 Since 1995, federal school lunches and breakfasts have had
to meet the requirements set in the Dietary
Guidelines for Americans, which include limits on total and saturated fat (no more than 30
percent of calories from fat, with less than 10
percent from saturated fat). Schools reduced
the average share of calories from fat in
lunches from 38 percent in 1991–92 to 34
percent in 1998–99, but more than 75 percent of schools have not met the recommended share of 30 percent. Elementary
schools are doing better than high schools.21
The nutritional profile of school meals has
improved over the past fifteen years but is
not yet what it should be.
Impact of school meals on child nutrition.
School meal programs significantly improve
school-age children’s diets.22 Children who
eat school lunches and breakfasts have higher
mean intakes of micronutrients, both at
mealtime and over twenty-four hours, than
those who do not.23 For the 59 percent of
children eating school meals who come from
low-income families, the meals provide a
necessary safeguard against hunger.24 Participation in the program declines drastically
with age. It also declines as competing options to school meals become available.25
Commodity foods. Schools participating in
the lunch program are eligible to receive
commodity foods as well as bonus commodities. The commodity foods support American
farmers by providing price supports and removing surpluses. Commodity foods must be
of domestic origin, and 60 percent of the
commodities purchased for schools must be
from surplus stocks.26 Commodities make up
about 20 percent of the food schools use,
with local school districts buying the rest on
the open market or through purchasing cooperatives.27 During the 2005–06 school year,
schools can receive donated commodity
foods from the USDA, valued at 17.5 cents
for each lunch served.28 More than 94,000
schools receive commodities. During the
2004 school year, the USDA purchased more
than $7.7 million worth of commodities for
schools, totaling more than 1.1 billion
pounds.29 The states administer the commodities program, with each state selecting
from a list of foods purchased by the USDA.
Changes are needed in the commodity food
program. The USDA should revise specifications to procure commodity foods that are
consistent with those outlined in the Dietary
Guidelines. The program should also offer
more fresh produce and healthful lower-fat
foods and make more connections with local
farmers.
Financial issues. Budget pressures complicate schools’ efforts to provide nutritious
meals.30 School food service programs, once
regular line items in local school budgets,
now must often be completely self-supporting and cover costs of food, labor, and other
expenses, such as equipment, utilities, and
trash removal.31 Federal reimbursements
and revenue from food sales are their principal sources of funds. In the 2005–06 school
year, the USDA will reimburse participating
schools $2.32 for every free lunch provided,
$1.92 for every reduced-price lunch sold, and
$0.22 for every other (“paid”) lunch meal
sold.32 A recent analysis, however, found that
expenses covered by federal reimbursements
fell from 54 percent in 1996–97 to 51 percent
in 2000–01.33 Schools can enhance revenues
in three ways: by increasing the number of
students who eat federal meals, by increasing
prices for full-price meals, and by expanding
Г la carte and catering sales.34 The first two
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options—increasing school meal participation and raising prices of school meals—are
difficult because many competing options are
available from which students can purchase
food at school. To try to break even, many
food service directors thus choose the third
option: selling popular but nutritionally poor
foods Г la carte.35 In one analysis in 2000,
total revenue from Г la carte foods was 43
percent.36 Not surprisingly, sales of Г la carte
items are inversely related to sales of school
Serving reimbursable meals
that are more appealing to
students and offering more
healthful Г la carte items
would help students eat more
healthfully.
lunch meals.37 In states that restrict the sale
of competitive foods, such as Mississippi,
Louisiana, West Virginia, and Georgia, school
meal participation rates exceed the national
average.38
To encourage more students to participate in
the school meal program, some schools are
hiring culinary experts to develop healthful,
tasty meals; are making cafeterias more youth
friendly; and are enhancing the cafeteria’s atmosphere. Indeed, the cafeteria itself can be
a barrier to healthy eating. In some schools,
lunch is served as early as 10:00 a.m. or as
late as 1:30 p.m. Long cafeteria lines send
students to vending machines or school
stores. Insufficient time for lunch, cramped
and unattractive cafeterias, and noise can also
discourage participation in school meals. All
these issues have financial implications, and
structural issues, such as the cafeteria space
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THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
or time allowed for lunch, are not under the
school food service’s control.
School food services, facing difficult times,
are using a variety of expense-containment
and revenue-producing strategies to try to
manage school food service finances. Serving
reimbursable meals that are more appealing
to students and offering more healthful Г la
carte items would help students eat more
healthfully. For this change to happen, however, schools need to curtail foods sold outside the cafeteria that compete with school
meals. Limiting competitive foods during
school mealtimes could increase meal participation and increase revenues.
Full funding for the school meal programs
could also relieve pressure on schools’ food
services to generate extra funding through
competitive food sales. Schools that participate in the federal meal programs receive a
fixed reimbursement for each meal served.
Federal reimbursement rates are typically
nine to ten times higher for free meals than
for reduced-price or paid meals.39 Although
some states contribute supplemental funds
and most schools receive donated USDA
commodity foods, federal reimbursements
are inadequate to cover the remainder of the
meals’ costs.
Competitive Foods
Competitive foods are all foods offered for
sale at school except federal school meals.40
They include Г la carte foods offered in the
school cafeteria as well as foods and beverages sold in snack bars, student stores, vending machines, and fund-raisers.41 Current law
tightly limits the Agriculture Department’s
authority to regulate competitive foods,
which fall into two categories. The first category, called foods of minimal nutritional
value, is defined in federal regulations as
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The Role of Schools in Obesity Prevention
foods that provide less than 5 percent of the
RDA per serving for each of eight key nutrients. They include soft drinks, water ices,
chewing gum, and certain candies made
largely from sweeteners, such as hard candy
and jelly beans. These foods, which the
USDA regulates, cannot be sold in food service areas during meal periods, but they may
be sold anywhere else in the school at any
time.42 A vending machine with soft drinks
and candy, for example, could be placed in
the hall outside the cafeteria and be available
to students all day. The second category of
competitive foods, which is not under USDA
authority, consists of all other foods offered
for individual sale. This category, which includes candy bars, potato chips, cookies, and
doughnuts, may be sold in the cafeteria during meal periods as well as anywhere else in
the school. Although reimbursable school
meals must meet federal nutrition and dietary guidelines, competitive foods have no
such requirements. The federal definition of
“foods of minimal nutritional value” is thirty
years old and narrow in scope. It should be
expanded to include additional foods with
limited nutritional value. Further, although
the federal school meal programs set appropriate portion sizes, competitive foods follow
no size guidelines. Twenty ounces of soda, for
example, is the standard size in many school
vending machines.
Availability of competitive foods. The availability of high-fat, high-sugar foods and beverages in schools creates a food environment
that invites excess energy intake and excess
weight gain.43 The national School Health
Policies and Programs Study (SHPPS) 2000
found that 43 percent of elementary schools,
74 percent of middle schools, and 98 percent
of high schools have vending machines,
school snack bars, or other food sources outside of the school meal programs.44 The most
common competitive foods are carbonated
beverages, fruit drinks that are not 100 percent juice, salty snacks, and high-fat baked
goods. Only 18 percent of the foods available
through vending machines, school stores, or
snack bars are fruits or vegetables. Most
schools (58 percent of elementary schools, 84
percent of middle schools, and 94 percent of
high schools) sell soft drinks, sports drinks, or
fruit drinks.45 In one study, the mean number
of soft drink machines available to high
school students was 5.3 (ranging from two to
eleven).46 Another study found that nearly
nine out of ten schools offered competitive
foods through Г la carte cafeteria lines, vending machines, and school stores during the
2003–04 school year. The sale of competitive
foods has increased over the past five years,
with schools often selling them in or near the
cafeteria and during lunch. High schools and
middle schools were more likely to sell such
foods than elementary schools.47
In the SHPPS 2000 survey, nearly all (83 percent) schools offered food Г la carte.48 And
the wide availability of high-fat foods in cafeteria Г la carte options has been documented.49 In one study, Simone French and
her colleagues found that only a third of
foods in high school Г la carte areas and in
vending machines met the lower-fat guideline of less than 5.5 fat grams per serving.50
The average number of Г la carte food items
typically available per school was 80 (ranging
from 39 to 156), with chips and crackers making up the largest share of items. Fruits and
vegetables were available Г la carte in 85 percent of the schools, but they made up only 4
percent of total Г la carte foods available.51
School districts have also established contracts with fast-food vendors. In the 2003
California High School Fast Food Survey,
roughly one-fourth of 173 districts reported
selling brand-name products from Taco Bell,
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Subway, Domino’s, and Pizza Hut in high
schools.52
School fundraisers often involve the sale of
food or beverages. In the SHPPS 2000 survey, 82 percent of the schools reported that
school clubs, sports teams, or the parentteacher association (PTA) sold food at school
or in the community to raise money.53 According to the California fast-food survey, 74
percent of school food service directors re-
Competitive foods sold to
students are displacing fruits
and vegetables and other
healthful foods and
contributing to excessive fat
and saturated fat intake.
ported that student clubs sell food during
school mealtimes.54 Other groups selling
food at mealtimes in high schools are booster
clubs (33 percent), the PTA (31 percent), and
the physical education (PE) department (28
percent). Food fundraisers directly compete
with the food service department and are
subject to no nutritional standards. Student
groups could instead raise funds by selling
nonfood items, such as gift wrap, magazines,
and plants, and by hosting walk-a-thons and
auctions.
Impact of competitive foods on child nutrition. Competitive foods sold to students are
displacing fruits and vegetables and other
healthful foods and contributing to excessive
fat and saturated fat intake. One study examined the diets of 598 seventh- and eighthgrade students and found that the greater the
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THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
availability at school of Г la carte foods, the
lower the daily intake of fruits and vegetables
and the higher the intake of daily total fat and
saturated fat. The greater the availability of
snack vending machines, the lower the intake
of fruit.55 Karen Cullen and Issa Zakeri found
that when elementary school students entered middle school and gained access to
school snack bars, they consumed fewer
fruits and non-starchy vegetables, less milk,
and more sweetened beverages and high-fat
vegetables than they did when they were in
elementary school and had no option but the
school lunch.56 In a study of 743 sixth-grade
students aged eleven to thirteen in three
public middle schools in Kentucky, one-third
who purchased the regular school lunch also
bought competitive food items—mostly
chips, fruitades or sport beverages, and cakes
and cookies—in the lunchroom.57 These students reduced their school lunch servings, resulting in lower intakes of minerals and vitamins and higher intakes of energy and fat. All
these studies highlight the importance of
school lunch program meals to fruit, vegetable, and milk consumption among children and adolescents.
School funding issues and competitive foods.
As noted, competitive food sales generate an
important revenue stream for schools in a climate of funding constraints. Many schools
have come to rely on profits from competitive food sales to support food service operations, academic programs, cocurricular activities, and after-school activities.58 Schools that
are under financial pressure are more likely
to make low-nutrition foods and beverages
available to their students, have soft drink
contracts, and allow food and beverage advertising to students.59 A 2005 Government
Accountability Office (GAO) report found
that many schools, particularly high schools
and middle schools, generated substantial
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The Role of Schools in Obesity Prevention
revenues through competitive food sales—
more than $125,000 apiece each year for the
top 30 percent of high schools.60 Food services generally spent their revenue on food
service operations while school groups put
theirs toward student activities.
School districts nationwide have also negotiated contracts for product sales, primarily
soft drinks.61 These “pouring rights” contracts typically involve substantial lump-sum
payments to school districts and additional
payments over five to ten years in return for
exclusive sales of one company’s products in
vending machines and at all school events.62
Companies also advertise on scoreboards, in
hallways, on book covers, and elsewhere.
Many contracts increase the share of profits
schools receive when sales volume increases,
further encouraging schools to promote consumption.
These practices contradict the nutrition and
health messages students receive in the classroom and contribute to poor dietary habits.
They also give soda companies unfettered access to youth and the chance to develop lifetime brand loyalty.63 Despite increased public attention to food in schools and to the
eroding quality of diets among youth, many
schools hesitate to restrict competitive food
for fear of losing income.
In August 2005, in response to growing pressure from parents and public health advocates, the American Beverage Association announced voluntary restrictions on sales of
soft drinks in elementary and middle schools.
The companies will encourage school districts and bottlers to provide only bottled
water and 100 percent juice in elementary
schools and to provide lower-calorie beverages in middle schools until after school. But
because the new policy will apply only to new
contracts, it will take several years to phase
high-calorie beverages out of elementary and
middle schools.64 And high schools, which
have many more vending machines, will be
unaffected.
Public discomfort with the school food environment is growing. The question is whether
schools can provide more healthful food options without losing sales revenue.65 Evidence about how reducing the sale of unhealthful foods and beverages or offering
more healthful options would affect revenue
is limited. But some studies have found that
school food service staff reported no loss of
revenue when they offered students more
healthful Г la carte choices.66 And schools in
Maine, California, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania replaced soft drinks with more healthful beverages without losing revenue.67
Surprisingly few national data are available
on schools’ income from vending machines.68
A 2003 Texas Department of Agriculture survey found that total annual revenue from
vending contracts for all 1,256 state schools
was about $54 million.69 It also found that
food service departments lose $60 million a
year in federal reimbursable meal sales to
competitive foods, resulting in a net loss.
During the 2001–02 school year, the total
deficit for Texas school food service operations was $23.7 million, which had to be subsidized from other district sources.
Because many schools generate substantial
revenue through competitive food sales,
making changes entails financial risks.70
Some school districts, however, have taken
steps to mitigate potential revenue changes,
such as substituting healthful foods for less
healthful ones instead of removing all competitive foods, getting students involved in
promoting healthful foods, using marketing
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approaches to encourage students to make
healthful choices, offering alternate means
for fundraising, and implementing changes
gradually or at the beginning of the school
year. Without support from the groups that
use the revenue from competitive food sales,
districts can see their policy changes curtailed.71 Also, getting student suggestions
about what types of nutritious foods would be
offered will promote acceptance.
The message from Making It Happen! is that,
given the opportunity, students will buy and
consume healthy foods and beverages and,
more important, that schools can maintain a
profitable bottom line at the same time. Of
the seventeen schools and school districts
that reported income data, twelve increased
revenue and four reported no change.
Policy implications. Federal rules governing
the availability, content, and sale of competitive foods and setting schoolwide nutrition
standards are inadequate.72 Congress should
grant the secretary of agriculture broader authority to regulate the availability, content, and
sale of competitive foods during the school
day and set nutrition standards for all foods
and beverages sold. Such actions would not
only enhance children’s health and nutrition
but also protect the federal investment in
child nutrition through the national school
meal programs.73 Limiting the sale of competitive foods during school meals would increase
participation in school meals and help ensure
that children receive a nutritious meal.
Schools are unique in their ability to promote
physical activity and increase energy expenditure—and thereby help reduce childhood
obesity.75 A comprehensive school physical
activity program should consist of PE, health
education that includes information about
physical activity, recess time for elementary
school students, intramural sport programs
and physical activity clubs, and interscholastic
sports for high school students.76 Schools can
also encourage brief bouts of physical activity
during classroom time—as in the Michigan
Department of Education’s “Brain Breaks”
program and the International Life Sciences
Institute’s “Take 10!”—and walking and bicycling to school.77
Model School Nutrition Programs
Advocates, administrators, parents, educators,
and health professionals across the country
are promoting grassroots nutrition initiatives.
Making It Happen! School Nutrition Success
Stories showcases thirty-two schools that are
offering and selling more nutritious foods and
beverages. The schools carried out their reforms by setting nutrition standards for competitive foods, changing food and beverage
contracts, making more healthful foods and
beverages available, using marketing techniques to promote healthful choices, limiting
access to competitive foods, and using fundraising activities and rewards that support
rather than undermine student health.74
Physical education—a formal, school-based
educational program that uses physical activity to achieve fitness, skills, health, or educational goals—is at the center of a comprehensive school-based physical activity program.78
It is an important but undervalued curricular
area that aims to help all students develop
the knowledge, skills, and confidence to be
physically active both in and out of school
and throughout their lives.79
118
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
The School Physical Activity
Environment
Physical Activity Recommendations
Current guidelines recommend that children
engage in at least sixty minutes of physical activity on most, preferably all, days of the
week.80 The Institute of Medicine’s Prevent-
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The Role of Schools in Obesity Prevention
ing Childhood Obesity: Health in the Balance
report recommends at least thirty minutes of
activity during each school day.81 The National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends 150 minutes a week of
PE for elementary school children and 225
minutes a week for middle- and secondaryschool children.82 Nationally, only 8 percent
of elementary schools and 6 percent of middle schools and high schools meet these recommendations.83
Physical Education Classes and
Barriers to Expanding PE
Physical education requirements decline
drastically as a student’s grade level increases.
The share of schools requiring PE drops from
around 50 percent for grades 1 through 5, to
25 percent in grade 8, to only 5 percent in
grade 12.84 Although the share of high school
students enrolled in PE classes appears to
have increased from 1991 to 2003 (49 percent
to 56 percent), the share of students attending
PE daily fell from 42 percent to 28 percent.85
The quality of PE classes is also crucial to
their effect on child and adolescent overweight. Only a third of adolescents were physically active in PE class for more than twenty
minutes three to five days a week.86
Schools must fit many subjects and activities
into the school day and must balance state
and local resources, priorities, and needs for
education. In recent years, however, the
comprehensive curriculum has been eroding,
especially in the wake of the federal No Child
Left Behind Act of 2001, which focuses on
student achievement in defined core academic subjects.87 As states develop or select
standardized tests to hold schools and students accountable, content that is not tested,
such as physical education, has become a
lower priority.88 But, as noted, time devoted
to physical education does not lessen per-
formance in other areas and can in fact enhance both students’ readiness to learn and
academic achievement.89
Recess
Unstructured physical activity during recess
allows children to have choices, develop rules
for play, release energy and stress, and use
skills developed in physical education.90 It
may also help in the classroom. Uninterrupted instructional time may cause attention
spans to wane as restless children have difficulty concentrating on specific classroom
tasks. One study found that fourth-graders
had concentration problems on days without
recess.91
The SHPPS 2000 survey found that 29 percent of elementary schools schedule no recess for students in kindergarten through
fifth grade.92 The National Association for
Sport and Physical Education, by contrast,
recommends that schools provide supervised,
daily recess for students up to grades 5 or 6;
that, if possible, recess not be scheduled
back-to-back with physical education classes;
that recess be viewed not as a reward but as a
necessary educational support; that students
not be denied recess to punish misbehavior
or to make up work; and that recess complement, not substitute for, structured PE.93
Extracurricular Programs
Interscholastic sports programs, intramural
activities, and physical activity clubs also
keep children active in school. Intramural
sports and clubs offer students with a wide
range of abilities opportunities to engage in
physical activity. But only 49 percent of
schools offer intramural sports and sports
clubs, and only 22 percent provide transportation home for students who participate
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Mary Story, Karen M. Kaphingst, and Simone French
tion.94 To help prevent obesity, the Institute
of Medicine calls for partnerships between
schools and public and private sectors to enhance funding and opportunities for intramural sports and other activities in school and
after-school programs.95
Health Curriculum
Health education is an essential part of a coordinated school health program, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention. By highlighting the importance of both nutrition and physical activity,
health education can help students adopt and
maintain physically active and healthfuleating lifestyles.96 Key elements of health education include a planned and sequential educational program for students in grades
K–12; behavioral skills development; instructional time at each grade level; instruction
from qualified teachers; involvement of parents, health professionals, and other community members; and periodic curriculum evaluation and updating.97 Research supports the
effectiveness of behavioral-oriented curriculums in promoting healthful food choices and
physical activity.98 To maximize classroom
time, nutrition and physical activity instruction could also be integrated into the lesson
plans of other school subjects, such as math,
biology, and the language arts.
Only six states do not require schools to provide health education.99 Nearly 70 percent of
states require health education curriculums
to include instruction on nutrition and dietary behavior, and some 62 percent require
content on physical activity and fitness.100
But health education teachers at all levels average only about five hours a year teaching
about the former and four hours a year about
the latter—not nearly enough to affect children’s behavior.101 Competing time demands,
a lack of resources, and the increased focus
120
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
on meeting state academic standards all chip
away at teaching time.102 Integrating health
education into the existing curriculum is one
way to overcome these problems.
School Health Services
School health services can play a central role
in addressing obesity-related issues among
students by providing screening, health information, and referrals to students. Services
and settings vary widely, ranging from traditional, school-based basic core services to
comprehensive primary care either in schoolbased health centers or in off-campus health
centers.103
School-based health centers offer students
primary care, including diagnostic and treatment services.104 Their number is growing
rapidly, from some 200 in 1990 to about
1,500 today.105 A 2002 national survey found
61 percent of the centers in urban settings,
37 percent in elementary schools, and 36 percent in high schools. More than half of the
students in schools with such health centers
are African American or Hispanic.106 The
centers are typically open twenty-nine hours
a week, and 39 percent are open during the
summer. Survey participants cited nutrition
as their most important prevention-related
service.107 The centers are an untapped resource for preventing obesity, because the
students they serve are at high risk of obesity,
tend to be underinsured, and may not receive
health services elsewhere.108
Height, weight, and BMI screening and reporting. School health services are an ideal
way to collect height, weight, or body mass
index (BMI) information about children.
These measurements are traditionally taken
in a physician’s office, and some observers
think they should not be taken in schools.109
But an estimated 9.2 million U.S. children
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The Role of Schools in Obesity Prevention
and youth lack health insurance and therefore may not get regular medical care.110 Because nearly all children attend school, these
preventive screening measures would be
available to all families at no cost. And collecting height and weight measures is already
an established practice in schools. In 2000,
26 percent of states required schools to
screen students for height and weight or
body mass; of these, 61 percent required
them to notify parents of the results. Among
school districts, 38 percent required such
screening, of which 81 percent required
parental notification.111 Taking these measures annually and converting them to an ageand gender-specific BMI percentile for each
child makes it possible to monitor individual
children over time. It also provides an opportunity for early intervention in obesity prevention.
A newer strategy is parental notification by
health “report cards.”112 Family involvement
in obesity interventions is considered integral, and sharing children’s weight through
report cards may help raise family awareness
of children’s weight status and health risk.113
Concerns about this practice include privacy
issues, the problem of labeling and stigmatizing certain children, risks that parents will
place children on diets without consulting a
physician, and risks of causing eating disorders.114 Some also question whether BMI reporting can be effective if a school has an unhealthful food environment and lacks a good
PE program.115
The Institute of Medicine endorses BMI reporting. It also recommends that schools
measure each student’s weight, height, and
gender- and age-specific BMI percentile
each year and make the information available
to parents and also to the students when ageappropriate.116 The institute acknowledges
concerns about BMI reporting and emphasizes that student data must be collected and
reported validly and appropriately, with attention to privacy concerns and with information on referrals available if follow-up health
services are needed.
Three school districts—Cambridge, Massachusetts; Allentown, Pennsylvania; and Citrus County, Florida—have adopted schoolbased BMI reporting measures.117 They send
School health services
can play a central role in
addressing obesity-related
issues among students by
providing screening, health
information, and referrals
to students.
home each year a health report that includes
the child’s BMI percentage and a description
of his or her risk category. The first study of
this school-based practice, conducted with elementary school children and their parents in
Cambridge, was promising.118 Parents of
overweight children who received health reports were more aware of their child’s weight
status and were more likely to consider looking into medical help, dieting, and physical
activities for their child than parents who received general or no health information.
Arkansas also recently created a comprehensive program to combat childhood obesity.
Major provisions include: conducting annual
BMI screenings for all public school students, with results reported to parents; restricting access to vending machines in public
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elementary schools; disclosing schools’ contracts with food and beverage companies;
creating district advisory committees made
up of parents, teachers, and local community
leaders; and establishing a Child Health Advisory Committee to recommend additional
physical activity and nutrition standards for
public schools.119 In 2004 Illinois required
the state’s Department of Health to collect
height and weight measurements as part of
the mandatory health exam for students. In
2005 West Virginia, Tennessee, and New
York enacted legislation requiring student
BMI reports.120
Schools as Work Sites
Schools are one of the nation’s largest employers, with approximately 4 percent of the
total U.S. workforce.121 In 2001, nearly 6 million teachers and staff worked in the public
school system.122 The school setting thus
holds great promise for their health promotion. Built-in advantages in this setting include fitness facilities, food service personnel, nursing and counseling staff, and health
and physical education staff.123 Work site
health promotion could encourage staff and
teachers to value nutrition and physical activity more highly and to heighten their commitment to adopting and implementing related programs for their students.124 Faculty
and staff who practice health-promoting
behaviors could also be role models for
students.125
Work site health promotion for faculty and
staff is also part of the coordinated school
health program recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
(CDC). It can include health screenings,
health education, employee assistance programs, and health care.126 But school districts
lag behind other major employers in offering
work site programs.127 In schools, as in other
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work sites, successful programs require an involved, committed, and supportive administration.128
The SHPPS 2000 survey provides the first
comprehensive data on work site programs.129 Not one state requires districts or
schools to fund or sponsor nutrition and dietary counseling, physical activity and fitness
counseling, or programs such as walking or
jogging clubs for teachers and staff. More
districts and schools should implement or
strengthen work site health promotion. And
researchers should seek out interventions
conducted in these settings to identify and
replicate best practices.130
State and Local School Nutrition
and Physical Activity Policies
While in many respects inadequate themselves, especially regarding competitive
foods, USDA nutrition regulations permit
state agencies and local school food authorities to impose additional restrictions on all
food and beverage sales at any time in
schools participating in the federal school
meal programs. In recent years, many states,
local school districts, and individual schools
have taken up the challenge. States are also
becoming more active in promoting physical
activity.
Twenty-three states have adopted additional
restrictions, including policies that limit the
times or types of competitive foods available
for sale in vending machines, cafeterias, and
school stores and snack bars.131 Most states
restrict access to competitive foods when
school meals are being served. Five restrict
access all day long.132 During the first six
months of 2005, forty states introduced some
200 bills that provide nutritional guidance for
schools. Eleven states—Arizona, California,
Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine,
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New Mexico, South Carolina, Texas, and
West Virginia—mandated nutritional standards for competitive foods.133 See the legislative activity box for highlights of nutritionand physical activity–related legislation enacted during the first half of 2005.
Several school districts have also taken action. More than half of the nation’s ten largest
school districts restrict competitive foods beyond federal and state regulations. The New
York City Public School District, the nation’s
largest, eliminated candy, soda, and other
snack foods from all vending machines starting in fall 2003. Vending machines on school
grounds can sell only water, low-fat snacks,
and 100 percent fruit juices.134 The Los Angeles Unified School District passed a soda
vending ban that went into effect in January
2004. A further ban on fried chips, candy,
and other snack foods in school vending machines and stores went into effect in July
2004.135 The Chicago public schools announced in 2004 a plan to ban soft drinks,
candy, and high-fat snacks from school vending machines and to replace them with more
healthful offerings. The Philadelphia School
District recently passed a comprehensive
school nutrition policy that includes nutrition
education, guidelines for all foods and beverages sold in schools, family and community
involvement, and program evaluation.
A 2005 report surveyed principals and found
that 60 percent of schools in the 2003–04
school year had written policies in place that
restricted competitive foods accessible to students, and most often school districts developed and enacted the policies. A recent study
examined associations between high school
students’ lunch patterns and vending machine
purchases and the schools’ food environment
and policies.136 In schools with established
policies, students reported making fewer
snack food purchases than students in schools
without policies. Students at schools with
open-campus policies during lunchtime were
significantly more likely to eat lunch at a fastfood restaurant than students at schools with
closed-campus policies. These findings suggest that school food policies that decrease access to foods high in fats and sugars are associated with less frequent consumption of
these items during the school day.
A 2005 report surveyed
principals and found that
60 percent of schools in the
2003–04 school year had
written policies in place that
restricted competitive foods
accessible to students.
The Trust for America’s Health recently examined state statutes and administrative
codes for physical activity policies.137 Only
two states, South Dakota and Oklahoma,
have no PE requirement for elementary and
secondary schools. Twenty-seven states require PE in elementary, middle, and high
school. Two states, Arizona and Mississippi,
have no PE requirement for high school, and
twenty-seven require only one-half credit or
one credit of PE for graduation. Illinois is the
only state that requires daily PE in every
grade, although its duration is not specified.
State requirements, however, are often not
enforced. Amidst many other mandated curriculum requirements and tight school budgets, PE is often viewed as a low priority.138
Moreover, the SHPPS 2000 nationwide survey found that 17 percent of elementary
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Highlights of 2005 State Legislative Activity
Nutrition-Related Legislation
Arizona has mandated the state Department of Education (DOE) to develop minimum nutrition
standards that meet or exceed federal regulations for all foods and beverages sold or served at elementary and middle or junior high schools or at school-sponsored events. It also prohibits foods
of minimal nutritional value from being sold or served during the school day at any elementary,
middle, or junior high school campus. Finally the law forbids school administrators from signing
food and beverage contracts that include the sale of sugared, carbonated beverages and all other
foods of minimal nutritional value on elementary and middle or junior high school campuses.
In Kentucky the Board of Education must issue regulations that set minimum nutrition standards
for all foods and beverages that are sold outside the National School Breakfast and National
School Lunch Programs. State legislators also banned the sale of competitive foods and beverages, except those sold à la carte, from the first student’s arrival at the school building until thirty
minutes after the last lunch period. They allow only “school day–approved beverages”—defined as
water, 100 percent fruit juice, low-fat milk, and any other beverage containing no more than 10
grams of sugar per serving—to be sold in elementary school vending machines, school stores,
canteens, or fundraisers during the school day. The state will assess financial penalties for schools
that violate the new state requirements.
Maine’s legislators have asked the DOE to work with public schools to encourage nutrition education as part of a coordinated school health program. The law requires schools’ food service programs to post caloric information for prepackaged à la carte items made available for purchase.
In addition, the DOE must adopt policies that establish nutritional standards for food and beverage items sold outside the federal meal program. The standards must include maximum portion
sizes that are consistent with the single-serving standards established by the Food and Drug Administration. It also establishes a pilot program to install vending machines that sell only flavored
or unflavored milk, containing no more than 1 percent fat. Finally it mandates the DOE, in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources, to implement the National
Farm to School Program. This program will provide locally grown fruits and vegetables to public
schools.
West Virginia now prohibits the sale of soft drinks through vending machines, school stores, or onsite fundraisers during the school day in areas accessible to students in elementary and middle or
junior high schools. During the school day, these schools are permitted to sell only “healthy beverages,” defined as water, 100 percent fruit and vegetable juice, low-fat milk, and other juice beverages with at least 20 percent real juice. For high schools that permit the sale of soft drinks, the
law also requires that “healthy beverages” must account for at least 50 percent of the total beverages offered and must be located near the vending machines containing soft drinks.
Physical Education and Physical Activity Legislation
In Kentucky each school council with grades K through 5 must develop and implement a wellness
policy that includes moderate to vigorous physical activity each day. It may allow physical activity
up to thirty minutes a day or 150 minutes a week to be part of instructional time. Legislators also
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mandated the state Board of Education to develop a physical activity environment assessment
tool for school districts.
A new South Carolina law requires 150 minutes a week of physical education and physical activity for students in grades K through 5 beginning in the 2006–07 academic year. It sets studentto-certified physical education teacher ratios for elementary schools to be phased in from 700:1
for the 2006–07 academic year to 600:1 for the 2007–08 academic year and to 500:1 for the
2008–09 academic year. As the ratio is phased in, the amount of time in PE must increase from
a minimum of sixty minutes a week to a minimum of ninety minutes a week, scheduled every day
or on alternate days. Each elementary school must also appoint a physical education teacher to
serve as its PE activity director to coordinate additional physical activity outside of PE instruction
times. In addition, the DOE must provide each school district with a coordinated school health
model while each school district must establish and maintain a Coordinated School Health Advisory Council to develop, implement, and evaluate a school wellness policy.
Texas legislators authorized the state Board of Education to extend its policy requiring elementary
school students to engage in 30 minutes of physical activity a day or 135 minutes a week to apply
to middle and junior high school students as well. Their legislation calls for health education to
emphasize the importance of proper nutrition and exercise and adds reporting requirements for
statistics and data related to student health and physical activity. It also establishes a state-level
School Health Advisory Committee within the Department of State Health Services to provide assistance in developing and supporting coordinated school health programs and school health
services.
In West Virginia each student in grades K through 5 must participate in at least thirty minutes of
physical education, including physical exercise, at least three days a week. Students in grades 6
through 8 must participate in at least one full period of PE, including physical exercise, every day
for one semester of the academic year. Those students in grades 9 through 12 must take at least
one full PE course, including physical exercise, for high school graduation and be given the opportunity to enroll in an elective lifetime physical education course. In addition, the state Board of Education must establish a program within the existing health and PE program that incorporates fitness testing, reporting, recognition and fitness events, and incentive programs. The program will
test cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, and body composition.
Source: Health Policy Tracking Service, a Thomson West Business, State Actions to Promote Nutrition, Increase Physical Activity, and Prevent
Obesity: A Legislative Overview, July 11, 2005 (www.netscan.com/outside/HPTSServices.asp [August 22, 2005]).
schools, 25 percent of middle and junior high
schools, and 40 percent of high schools exempt from required PE courses those students who participate in community or
school sports or in other school activities or
who have high physical competency test
scores.139 And few states and districts require
skill performance tests, fitness tests, or written knowledge tests.
Recent legislative activity, however, as seen in
the legislative activity box, demonstrates
promising attention to this area of children’s
development. Several states are encouraging,
not mandating, state and local education officials to enhance PE and physical activity in
schools. During the first half of 2005, six
states—North Dakota, Montana, Utah, Colorado, Tennessee, and Washington—adopted
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such resolutions.140 In April 2005, the North
Carolina State Board of Education voted to
require thirty minutes of daily physical activity for all students in grades K–8 beginning in
the 2006–07 school year.
Federal Policy Initiatives
The most recent federal policy initiatives for
preventing childhood obesity are found in
the Child Nutrition and Women, Infants, and
Children (WIC) Reauthorization Act of 2004,
Several interventions have
shown that the availability,
promotion, and pricing of
foods in schools can be
changed to support more
healthful food choices.
which requires each school district that participates in the federal school meal program
to enact a wellness policy by the day the
2006–2007 school year opens. School districts must set goals for nutrition education
and physical activity, write nutrition guidelines for all foods available at school, ensure
that school meal guidelines are not less restrictive than federal requirements, and evaluate how well the new policy is implemented.
Parents, students, the school food service,
and school administrators must be involved
in developing the new policy. The Food Research and Action Center and the National
Alliance for Nutrition and Activity are developing information and guidelines to assist
states and school districts.
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THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
gram begun by the 2002 Farm Act that provided fresh fruits and vegetables at no cost to
children in 107 elementary and secondary
schools in four states and on one Indian
reservation. A 2003 evaluation found that
most participating schools considered the
pilot program successful and felt strongly
that it should continue.141 The expanded program will serve children in four more states
and two more Indian reservations, with special emphasis on low-income children.142
School-Based Obesity-Prevention
Interventions
Many school-based interventions in recent
years have promoted healthful eating and
physical activity among children and adolescents, but relatively few interventions have
specifically targeted obesity prevention.
Several comprehensive reviews have summarized the research analyzing obesity-prevention, nutrition, and physical activity intervention.143 Overall, the findings of studies that
targeted eating and physical activity behaviors have been positive. School-based obesity-prevention interventions have also shown
some success in changing eating and physical
activity behaviors but have been less effective
in changing body weight or body fatness.144 A
recent report by the Task Force on Community Preventive Services concluded that insufficient evidence existed to determine the
effectiveness of combined nutrition and
physical activity interventions to prevent or
reduce obesity in school settings. The limited
number of qualifying studies, for example,
report noncomparable outcomes.145
In one such study, T. N. Robinson found that
a school-based intervention to decrease television and video viewing reduced the prevalence of obesity among third and fourth
graders.146 Planet Health, a school-based intervention to decrease television viewing and
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increase physical activity and healthful eating
among students, decreased obesity among
girls but not boys.147 A third intervention,
which reduced soft drink consumption in
England, lowered the number of overweight
and obese children aged seven to eleven.148
Several interventions have changed food environments in schools, reducing the fat content of school lunches and modifying the
prices of fruits and vegetables in the school
cafeteria and in vending machines.149 They
have shown that the availability, promotion,
and pricing of foods in schools can be
changed to support more healthful food
choices. Interventions are just beginning to
target the availability of competitive foods
and beverages. Little research has been done
on the effects of school, district, or state policy changes regarding the school food environment or changes in student dietary outcomes or in body mass indexes.
Studies have also shown that school PE
classes can be changed to make them much
more active and increase the time spent in
PE and in moderate to vigorous activity.150
One recent analysis found that an extra hour
of PE per week in first grade (compared with
time spent in PE in kindergarten) lowered
BMI in girls who had been overweight or at
risk for overweight in kindergarten.151 No effect was seen in boys. Interventions to increase energy expenditure through increased
physical activity and decreased consumption
of high-calorie, low-nutrition foods offer
promising strategies for preventing obesity.
The few existing school-based obesityprevention studies suggest that interventions
hold promise.152 For future studies, researchers should strengthen interventions
and should target the school environment,
the home environment, and student and par-
ent behaviors.153 Interventions could modify
the home environment by installing devices
to monitor television time or by increasing
the availability of healthful foods and limiting
energy-dense, low-nutrition foods. School
environment changes could include more
frequent required PE classes, more interesting and fun physical education choices, and
school-wide guidelines about food and beverage availability and sales.154
Research can also help reveal whether specific forms of interventions have different effects on children of different age, gender, or
ethnic groups. For example, targeting particular behaviors may be more successful with
one age group than with another. Younger
children may respond better to reducing television viewing while adolescents may benefit
from more structured and diverse PE opportunities. Changing Г la carte and vending machine food and beverage availability may be
more effective for high school students than
for elementary school students. More research is also needed to identify obesity prevention’s most potent behavioral targets, such
as limiting screen time, sugar-sweetened beverages, and portion sizes.
School Links with Communities
and Families
Although most physical activity and nutrition
programs directed at youth are conducted in
school, communities can also provide important resources. And family involvement is
often crucial.
Farm-to-School Programs
and School Gardens
Some schools are offering new farm-toschool programs that link local farmers with
school cafeterias. The programs provide
high-quality local produce, support locally
based agriculture, and often directly connect
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farmers and children with reciprocal visits.
Some schools also sponsor gardening programs. The Martin Luther King Junior Middle School in Berkeley, California, offers the
Edible Schoolyard, a nonprofit program that
allows students to participate in all aspects of
organic gardening and cooking, from seed to
table.155 Such hands-on experience may encourage children to eat more healthfully. A
recent study at three schools in California examined fourth graders’ knowledge of nutrition and their preference for certain vegetables.156 Students at one school received
nutrition education, those at a second school
received nutrition education and planted and
harvested a vegetable garden, and those at a
third served as a control group. Children who
received nutrition education alone and those
who received nutrition education combined
with gardening had much higher scores than
the control group. Children who gardened
also increased their preferences for certain
vegetables.
Walking and Biking to School
In recent decades, dramatically fewer children have been walking or biking to school.
In 1969, 48 percent of students walked or
biked to school. By 2001, less than 15 percent
of students aged five to fifteen walked to or
from school, and just 1 percent biked.157
Today roughly one-third of students ride a
school bus, and half are driven in a private
vehicle.158 Because the trip to and from
school happens daily, active commuting
(walking or biking) can provide substantial
caloric expenditures over the school year.159
One study used accelerometers, small electronic devices worn around the waist that
capture minute-by-minute recordings of activity level, to measure physical activity
among fourteen- to sixteen-year-old students.
It found that boys who walked to school expended forty-four more calories a day and
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girls expended thirty-three more calories a
day than did their peers who were driven.160
Projected over the course of a school year, or
200 days, this additional physical activity
could account for a two- to three-pound difference between those who walk to school
and those who do not, all other things held
constant.
To examine why most children do not walk or
bike to school, the CDC analyzed data from
the annual national HealthStyles Survey.161
Households with children aged five to eighteen were asked if their children walked or
biked to school and about any barriers they
faced in doing so. Reported barriers included
long distances (55 percent), traffic danger (40
percent), bad weather (24 percent), crime
(18 percent), opposing school policy (7 percent), and other reasons (26 percent). Sixteen
percent of respondents reported no barriers;
notably, within this group, 64 percent reported children walking and 21 percent reported children biking to or from school at
least once a week in the preceding month.
One major cause of active commuting’s decline is the trend toward constructing schools
away from the center of communities.162 Students with shorter walk and bike times to
school are more likely to walk and bike. Recent nationwide trends toward bigger schools
have also led to the decline of the “neighborhood” school. Since World War II, the number of schools has declined 70 percent, while
the average size has grown fivefold. Today,
however, communities are increasingly concerned about school siting decisions as they
relate to children’s health and overweight status. Communities, families, school districts,
and governments at all levels have begun mobilizing to facilitate active commuting by improving pedestrian and biking safety, adding
bike racks and crossing guards, mapping safe
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routes to schools, building new schools or
renovating older schools in residential neighborhoods, and forming such programs as the
Walking School Bus, Bike Trains, Safe Route
to School, National Walk Our Children to
School Day, and the federal Kids Walk-toSchool Campaign.163 Programs that involve
adult volunteers—such as the Walking
School Bus, which organizes neighborhood
chaperones to supervise children as they walk
to school—also increase physical activity
among adults.164
After-School Programs
After-school programs in child care centers,
schools, and community centers also offer
opportunities to implement obesity-prevention strategies. The 1990s saw a substantial
increase in after-school programs serving
children of low-income families.165 One of
the best known is the federally funded 21st
Century Community Learning Centers, a
school-based after-school program providing
academic enrichment and youth development opportunities. Federal funding grew
from $40 million in 1997 to almost $1 billion
in 2005. In 2001, 1.2 million elementary and
middle school students in 3,600 schools participated.166 Implementing obesity-prevention strategies in the 21st Century Community Learning Centers would not only reach
many young people directly but also offer a
model for other such programs.
A recent survey found that most after-school
programs do not address physical activity and
healthful eating, and that staff at many afterschool programs are untrained.167 But some
programs are leading the way. For example,
the Girls Health Enrichment Multi-Site
Studies (GEMS) program aimed to prevent
obesity among eight- to ten-year-old African
American girls. In a set of four pilot interventions, girls and their parents were recruited
through schools and other community channels to participate in after-school programs,
such as ethnic dance, that targeted healthful
eating, physical activity, and reduced television viewing.168 The results of the GEMS
pilot interventions were promising, demonstrating the feasibility and potential effectiveness of incorporating obesity-prevention efforts into after-school programs.
Federal funds are available to provide afterschool snacks to children up to age eighteen
A recent survey found that
most after-school programs do
not address physical activity
and healthful eating, and that
staff at many after-school
programs are untrained.
in after-school programs operated by schools,
nonprofit organizations, and public agencies.
Both the federal school lunch program and
the Child and Adult Care Food Program
(CACFP) offer cash reimbursements to afterschool programs for snacks. Subsidies vary by
the child’s family income, as they do for
breakfasts and lunches. Subsidies are provided with CACFP funds to provide free
snacks in programs located in areas where 50
percent or more of the children enrolled in
school are eligible for free or reduced-priced
school meals. Participation in the after-school
snack program has increased dramatically,
from some 645,000 children in 1999 to about
1.2 million in 2003.169 Reimbursable snacks
must follow the CACFP’s snack requirements, but more research is needed to assess
the nutritional value of the snack foods being
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offered and to find ways to serve more fruits
and vegetables.
Congress has recently allowed after-school
programs in seven states—Delaware, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Oregon, and Pennsylvania—to serve suppers as
well as snacks to children in areas where
more than 50 percent of the children qualify
for free or reduced-price school meals.170
Some low-income children may thus eat
three meals and a snack every weekday during the school year from federal food programs—a fact that highlights both the growing importance of the federal child nutrition
programs for children in low-income families
and the need to ensure that the foods these
programs serve are consistent with the recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for
Americans.
Family Involvement
Parents and caregivers provide the primary
social environment in which children form
attitudes and behaviors regarding eating and
physical activity. Parents create an environment conducive to active or sedentary
lifestyles, they select foods brought into the
home, they determine how often and what
types of meals are eaten outside the home,
and they model eating and physical activity
behaviors. Thus, to achieve maximal and
sustained behavior change, parents and
caregivers must be involved in obesity
prevention.
Reviews of efforts to prevent youth high-risk
behaviors, such as school failure, aggressive
behaviors, and substance abuse, have found
that combined school and family programs
deliver more benefits than those managed
separately.171 Most obesity-prevention programs, however, have focused almost exclusively on school programs. Actively involving
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parents is not always easy, but some programs
that included families achieved high rates of
recruitment and retention (around 80 percent) by using such incentives as food, child
care, transportation, and rewards for homework completion or attendance.172 Community organizations and other local resources
can also help schools connect with lowincome and minority parents.173 One creative
and effective way to involve parents is to
make school gyms and swimming pools available to students and their families after
school and on weekends.
Recommendations for Schools
Schools can become one of the nation’s most
effective weapons in the fight against obesity
by creating an environment that is conducive
to healthful eating and physical activity.
Health and success in school are interrelated;
schools cannot achieve their primary educational mission if their students and staff are
not healthy and physically, mentally, and socially fit. Each school can follow ten key
strategies, taken from CDC guidelines for its
coordinated school health program, to promote lifelong physical activity and healthful
eating for its population:
—address physical activity and nutrition
through a Coordinated School Health Program approach,
—designate a school health coordinator and
maintain an active school health council,
—assess the school’s health policies and programs and develop a plan for improvement,
—strengthen the school’s nutrition and physical activity policies,
—implement a high-quality health promotion program for school staff,
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—carry out a high-quality course of study in
health education,
—implement a high-quality PE course,
—increase opportunities for students to engage in physical activity,
—offer a quality school meals program, and
—ensure that students have appealing,
healthful choices in foods and beverages offered outside of the school meals program.174
The Institute of Medicine report, Preventing
Childhood Obesity: Health in the Balance,
also offers comprehensive recommendations
regarding school efforts to advance obesity
prevention and outlines immediate steps
schools can take to improve healthful eating
and physical activity.175 Among those steps
are improving the nutritional quality of foods
and beverages served and sold in schools and
as part of school-related activities, increasing
opportunities for physical activity during and
after school, implementing school-based interventions to reduce children’s screen time,
and developing, implementing, and evaluating innovative pilot programs for both
staffing and teaching about wellness, healthful eating, and physical activity.
Conclusion
Research consistently shows that the diets of
most U.S. children fail to meet national nutrition guidelines. Nor do most U.S. children
get the recommended levels of daily physical
activity. As a result, today a larger share of the
nation’s children is overweight than at any
time in history. The prevalence of obesity,
having increased dramatically over the past
forty years, now threatens the immediate and
long-term health of children and youth.
With more than 54 million children in attendance daily, the nations’ schools offer many
opportunities for developing strategies to
prevent childhood obesity. Children spend
roughly a third of every weekday in school.
While they are there, they can consume up to
two meals, sometimes even three, plus
snacks. They have many different avenues for
recreation and physical activity. They also
take courses in health education and receive
health services of various kinds at school. If
schools can work together with policymakers,
advocates, parents, and communities to create an environment where children eat
healthfully, become physically fit, and develop lifelong habits that contribute to wellness, the nation will be well on its way to preventing obesity.
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Notes
1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA),
Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005 (Government Printing Office, 2005); U.S. Department of Health
and Human Services, Healthy People 2010: Understanding and Improving Health, 2nd ed. (GPO, 2000).
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Quickstats: Prevalence of Overweight among Children and
Teenagers, by Age Group and Selected Period, U.S., 1963–2002,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
54, no. 8 (2005): 203.
3. DHHS and USDA, Dietary Guidelines for Americans (see note 1); Jeffrey P. Koplan, Catharyn T. Liverman, and Vivica I. Kraak, eds., Preventing Childhood Obesity: Health in the Balance (Washington: National
Academies Press, 2005).
4. Action for Healthy Kids, The Learning Connection: The Value of Improving Nutrition and Physical Activity in Our Schools, 2004 (www.ActionForHealthyKids.org [July 7, 2005]).
5. J. B. Schwimmer, T. M. Burwinkle, and J. W. Varni, “Health-Related Quality of Life of Severely Obese
Children and Adolescents,” Journal of the American Medical Association 289, no. 14 (2003): 1813–19; A.
M. Tershakovec, S. C. Weller, and P. R. Gallagher, “Obesity, School Performance and Behaviour of Black,
Urban Elementary School Children,” International Journal of Obesity & Related Metabolic Disorders 18,
no. 5 (1994): 323–27.
6. National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation, Obesity in Young Children: Impact and Intervention, Research Brief (Washington: August 2004) (www.nihcm.org [July 7, 2005]); A. Datar, R. Sturm,
and J. L. Magnabosco, “Childhood Overweight and Academic Performance: National Study of Kindergartners and First-Graders,” Obesity Research 12, no. 1 (2004): 58–68.
7. Action for Healthy Kids, The Learning Connection (see note 4).
8. National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation, Obesity in Young Children (see note 6); A.
Must and others, “The Disease Burden Associated with Overweight and Obesity,” Journal of the American
Medical Association 282, no. 16 (1999): 1523–29; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, The
Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity (Rockville, Md.: 2001).
9. National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation, Obesity in Young Children (see note 6); I.
Janssen and others, “Associations between Overweight and Obesity with Bullying Behaviors in SchoolAged Children,” Pediatrics 113, no. 5 (2004): 1187–94.
10. L. Parker, The Relationship between Nutrition and Learning: A School Employee’s Guide to Information
and Action (Washington: National Education Association, 1989).
11. G. C. Rampersaud and others, “Breakfast Habits, Nutritional Status, Body Weight, and Academic Performance in Children and Adolescents,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 105, no. 5 (2005):
743–60.
12. Action for Healthy Kids, The Learning Connection (see note 4).
13. H. Taras, “Physical Activity and Student Performance at School,” Journal of School Health 75, no. 6 (2005):
214–18.
132
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14. Ibid.
15. Phil Gleason, Carol Suitor, and U.S. Food and Nutrition Service, Children’s Diets in the Mid-1990s: Dietary Intake and Its Relationship with School Meal Participation, Special Nutrition Programs, Report no.
CN-01-CD1 (Alexandria, Va.: U.S. Dept of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, 2001).
16. Trust for America’s Health, “F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies Are Failing in America” (www.healthyamericans.org [March 22, 2005]).
17. M. K. Fox, W. Hamilton, and B. H. Lin, Effects of Food Assistance and Nutrition Programs on Health and
Nutrition, vol. 3: Literature Review, Food Assistance and Nutrition Research Report no. 19-3 (Washington:
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, 2004).
18. Ibid.
19. M. K. Fox and others, School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study II: Summary of Findings (Alexandria,
Va.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, Office of Analysis, Nutrition, and Evaluation, 2001).
20. Ibid.
21. Gleason, Suitor, and U.S. Food and Nutrition Service, Children’s Diets in the Mid-1990s (see note 15); Fox
and others, School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study (see note 19).
22. Gleason, Suitor, and U.S. Food and Nutrition Service, Children’s Diets in the Mid-1990s (see note 15).
23. Ibid.
24. Food Research and Action Center, “State of the States, 2005: A Profile of Food and Nutrition Programs
across the Nation” (www.frac.org [March 22, 2005]).
25. Gleason, Suitor, and U.S. Food and Nutrition Service, Children’s Diets in the Mid-1990s (see note 15).
26. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, “About the Child Nutrition Commodity Programs” (www.fns.usda.gov/fdd/programs/schcnp/about-cnp.htm [August 15, 2005]).
27. Josephine Martin, “Overview of Federal Child Nutrition Legislation,” in Managing Child Nutrition Programs: Leadership for Excellence, edited by Josephine Martin and Martha T. Conklin (Gaithersburg, Md.:
Aspen Publishers, 1999).
28. Food Research and Action Center, “Income Guidelines and Reimbursement Rates for the Federal Child
Nutrition Programs Effective July 1, 2005–June 30, 2006,” 2005 (www.frac.org [August 22, 2005]).
29. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, “About the Child Nutrition Commodity Programs” (see note 26).
30. U.S. General Accounting Office, School Lunch Program: Efforts Needed to Improve Nutrition and Encourage Healthy Eating, Report no. GAO-03-506 (May 2003).
31. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Foods Sold in Competition with USDA School Meal Programs: A Report
to Congress (2001) (www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/Lunch/CompetitiveFoods/report_congress.htm [May 25,
2005]).
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32. Federal Register 70, no. 136 (January 18, 2005): 41196–99.
33. U.S. General Accounting Office, School Meal Programs: Revenue and Expense Information from Selected
States, Report no. GAO-03-569 (2003).
34. Ibid.
35. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Healthy Schools for Healthy Kids (Princeton, N.J.: 2003).
36. U.S. General Accounting Office, School Meal Programs (see note 33).
37. Fox and others, School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study (see note 19).
38. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Foods Sold in Competition with USDA School Meal Programs (see note 31).
39. Koplan, Liverman, and Kraak, Preventing Childhood Obesity (see note 3).
40. U.S. General Accounting Office, School Meal Programs: Competitive Foods Are Available in Many
Schools; Actions Taken to Restrict Them Differ by State and Locality, Report no. GAO-04-673 (2004).
41. Food Research and Action Center, Competitive Foods in Schools: Child Nutrition Policy Brief, 2004
(www.frac.org [March 22, 2005]).
42. Ibid.
43. U.S. General Accounting Office, School Meal Programs: Competitive Foods (see note 40); H. Wechsler and
others, “Using the School Environment to Promote Physical Activity and Healthy Eating,” Preventive Medicine 31, suppl. (2000): S121–37; Simone A. French and others, “Food Environment in Secondary Schools:
A la Carte, Vending Machines, and Food Policies and Practices,” American Journal of Public Health 93, no.
7 (2003): 1161–67; Lisa Harnack and others, “Availability of à la Carte Food Items in Junior and Senior
High Schools: A Needs Assessment,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 100, no. 6 (2000):
701–03; Marianne B. Wildey and others, “Fat and Sugar Levels Are High in Snacks Purchased from Student Stores in Middle Schools,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 100, no. 3 (2000): 319–22.
44. H. Wechsler and others, “Food Service and Foods and Beverages Available at School: Results from the
School Health Policies and Programs Study 2000,” Journal of School Health 71, no. 7 (2001): 313–24.
45. Ibid.
46. French and others, “Food Environment in Secondary Schools” (see note 43).
47. U.S. Government Accountability Office, School Meal Programs: Competitive Foods Are Widely Available
and Generate Substantial Revenues for Schools, Report no. GA0-05-563 (August 2005).
48. Wechsler and others, “Food Service and Foods and Beverages Available at School” (see note 44).
49. U.S. General Accounting Office, School Meal Programs: Competitive Foods (see note 40); French and others, “Food Environment in Secondary Schools” (see note 43); Harnack and others, “Availability of à la
Carte Food Items in Junior and Senior High Schools” (see note 43); Lisa Craypo and others, “Fast Food
Sales on High School Campuses: Results from the 2000 California High School Fast Food Survey,” Journal
of School Health 72, no. 2 (2002): 78–82; Lisa Craypo, Sarah E. Samuels, and Amanda Purcell, The 2003
California High School Fast Food Survey (Oakland, Calif.: Public Health Institute, 2004) (www.phi.org
[August 22, 2005]).
134
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50. French and others, “Food Environment in Secondary Schools” (see note 43).
51. Ibid.
52. Craypo, Samuels, and Purcell, The 2003 California High School Fast Food Survey (see note 49).
53. Wechsler and others, “Food Service and Foods and Beverages Available at School” (see note 44).
54. Craypo, Samuels, and Purcell, The 2003 California High School Fast Food Survey (see note 49).
55. Martha Y. Kubik and others, “The Association of the School Food Environment with Dietary Behaviors of
Young Adolescents,” American Journal of Public Health 93, no. 7 (2003): 1168–73.
56. Karen Weber Cullen and Issa Zakeri, “Fruits, Vegetables, Milk, and Sweetened Beverages Consumption
and Access to à la Carte/Snack Bar Meals at School,” American Journal of Public Health 94, no. 3 (2004):
463–67.
57. S. B. Templeton, M. A. Marlette, and M. Panemangalore, “Competitive Foods Increase the Intake of Energy and Decrease the Intake of Certain Nutrients by Adolescents Consuming School Lunch,” Journal of
the American Dietetic Association 105, no. 2 (2005): 215–20.
58. U.S. General Accounting Office, Commercial Activities in Schools, Report no. GAO/HEHS-00-156 (September 2000).
59. Patricia M. Anderson and Kristin F. Butcher, “Reading, Writing, and Raisinets: Are School Finances Contributing to Children’s Obesity?” (Cambridge, Mass.: National Bureau of Economic Research, March 2005)
(www.nber.org/papers/w11177 [June 21, 2005]).
60. U.S. Government Accountability Office, School Meal Programs (see note 47).
61. U.S. General Accounting Office, Commercial Activities in Schools (see note 58).
62. M. Nestle, “Soft Drink �Pouring Rights’: Marketing Empty Calories to Children,” Public Health Reports
115, no. 4 (2000): 308–19.
63. M. Nestle, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (Los Angeles: University
of California Press, 2002).
64. American Beverage Association, Press Release: “Beverage Industry Announces New School Vending Policy” (www.ameribev.org/pressroom/2005_vending.asp [August 16, 2005]).
65. U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, “Food Choices at School: Risks to Child
Nutrition and Health Call for Action,” prepared by the Democratic Staff of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, May 18, 2004.
66. L. A. Lytle and others, “Environmental Outcomes from the Teens Study: Influencing Healthful Food
Choices in School and Home Environments,” Health Education & Behavior (forthcoming); Simone A.
French and others, “An Environmental Intervention to Promote Lower-Fat Food Choices in Secondary
Schools: Outcomes of the TACOS Study,” American Journal of Public Health 94, no. 9 (2004): 1507–12.
67. Center for Science in the Public Interest, Dispensing Junk: How School Vending Undermines Efforts to
Feed Children Well, 2004 (www.cspinet.org/schoolfoods [March 22, 2005]).
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68. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and U.S. Department of Education, Making It Happen!
School Nutrition Success Stories (Alexandria, Va.: January 2005) (www.fns.usda.gov/tn/Resources/
makingithappen. html [June 30, 2005]).
69. Texas Department of Agriculture, “School District Vending Contract Survey, 2003” (www.squaremeals.org
[March 24, 2005]).
70. U.S. Government Accountability Office, School Meal Programs (see note 47).
71. Ibid.
72. U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, “Food Choices at School” (see note 65).
73. Ibid.
74. U.S. Department of Agriculture and others, Making It Happen! (see note 68).
75. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Guidelines for School and Community Programs to Promote
Lifelong Physical Activity among Young People,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 46 (1997): 1–36;
C. R. Burgeson, “Physical Education’s Critical Role in Educating the Whole Child and Reducing Childhood Obesity,” State Education Standard 5, no. 2 (2004): 27–32.
76. Ibid.
77. Michigan Department of Education, “Brain Breaks: A Physical Activity Idea Book for Elementary Classroom Teachers” (www.emc.cmich.edu/BrainBreaks/default.htm [July 7, 2005]); International Life Sciences
Institute, “Take 10!” (www.take10.net [August 18, 2005]).
78. J. F. Sallis, “Behavioral and Environmental Interventions to Promote Youth Physical Activity and Prevent
Obesity,” June 22, 2003 (www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/sallis/Sallis_PA_interventions_for_Georgia_6.03.pdf
[May 30, 2005]).
79. Burgeson, “Physical Education’s Critical Role” (see note 75).
80. DHHS and Department of Agriculture, Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005 (see note 1); National Association for Sport and Physical Education, Physical Activity for Children: A Statement of Guidelines for
Children 5–12, 2nd ed. (Reston, Va.: 2004).
81. Koplan, Liverman, and Kraak, Preventing Childhood Obesity (see note 3).
82. National Association for Sport and Physical Education, Physical Activity for Children (see note 80).
83. C. R. Burgeson and others, “Physical Education and Activity: Results from the School Health Policies and
Programs Study 2000,” Journal of School Health 71, no. 7 (2001): 279–93.
84. Ibid.
85. J. A. Grunbaum and others, “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance—United States, 2003,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 53, no. 2 (2004): 1–96.
86. DHHS, Healthy People 2010 (see note 1).
87. Burgeson, “Physical Education’s Critical Role” (see note 75).
136
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88. National Association for Sport and Physical Education, Shape of the Nation: Executive Summary (Reston,
Va.: 2001).
89. President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports Research Digest, Physical Activity Promotion and
School Physical Education (Washington: September 1999) (www.fitness.gov/digest_sep1999.htm [July 7,
2005]); C. W. Symons and others, “Bridging Student Health Risks and Academic Achievement through
Comprehensive School Health Programs,” Journal of School Health 67, no. 6 (1997): 220–27; R. J. Shephard, “Curricular Physical Activity and Academic Performance,” Pediatric Exercise Science 9 (1997):
113–26; J. F. Sallis and others, “Effects of Health-Related Physical Education on Academic Achievement:
Project Spark,” Research Quarterly for Exercise & Sport 70, no. 2 (1999): 127–34.
90. National Association for Sport and Physical Education and Council on Physical Education for Children,
Position Paper: Recess in Elementary Schools, 2001 (www.aahperd.org/naspe/pdf_files/pos_papers/current_res.pdf [July 7, 2005]).
91. O. S. Jarrett, “Effect of Recess on Classroom Behavior: Group Effects and Individual Differences,” Journal of Education Research 92, no. 2 (1998): 121–26.
92. Burgeson and others, “Physical Education and Activity” (see note 83).
93. National Association for Sport and Physical Education and Council on Physical Education for Children,
Position Paper (see note 90).
94. Burgeson and others, “Physical Education and Activity” (see note 83).
95. Symons and others, “Bridging Student Health Risks and Academic Achievement” (see note 89).
96. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Coordinated School Health Program” (www.cdc.gov/
HealthyYouth/CSHP/ [July 15, 2005]).
97. L. Kann, N. D. Brener, and D. D. Allensworth, “Health Education: Results from the School Health Policies and Programs Study 2000,” Journal of School Health 71, no. 7 (2001): 266–78; National Association of
State Boards of Education, National Commission on the Role of the School and Community in Improving
Adolescent Health, Code Blue: Uniting for Healthier Youth (Alexandria, Va.: 1990).
98. Koplan, Liverman, and Kraak, Preventing Childhood Obesity (see note 3).
99. Trust for America’s Health, “F as in Fat” (see note 16).
100. Kann, Brener, and Allensworth, “Health Education” (see note 97).
101. Ibid.; L. A. Lytle and C. Achterberg, “Changing the Diet of America’s Children: What Works and Why?”
Journal of Nutrition Education 27, no. 5 (1995): 250–60.
102. U.S. General Accounting Office, School Lunch Program (see note 30).
103. N. D. Brener and others, “Health Services: Results from the School Health Policies and Programs Study
2000,” Journal of School Health 71, no. 7 (2001): 294–304; D. D. Allensworth, “School Health Services: Issues and Challenges,” in The Comprehensive School Health Challenge: Promoting Health through Education, vol. 1, edited by P. Cortese and K. Middleton (Santa Cruz, Calif.: ETR Associates, 1994).
104. Brener and others, “Health Services” (see note 103).
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Mary Story, Karen M. Kaphingst, and Simone French
105. The Center for Health and Health Care in Schools, George Washington University, “2002 State Survey of
School-Based Health Center Initiatives” (www.healthinschools.org/sbhcs/survey02.htm [July 5, 2005]).
106. Ibid.
107. Ibid.
108. The Center for Health and Health Care in Schools, George Washington University, “School-Based Health
Centers: Background” (www.healthinschools.org/sbhcs/sbhc.asp [July 5, 2005]).
109. L. M. Scheier, “School Health Report Cards Attempt to Address the Obesity Epidemic,” Journal of the
American Dietetic Association 104, no. 3 (2004): 341–44.
110. S. Bhandari and E. Gifford, Children with Health Insurance: 2001, Current Population Report P60-224
(U.S. Census Bureau, 2003).
111. Brener and others, “Health Services” (see note 103).
112. Scheier, “School Health Report Cards” (see note 109).
113. Ibid.
114. Koplan, Liverman, and Kraak, Preventing Childhood Obesity (see note 3); Scheier, “School Health Report
Cards” (see note 109).
115. Scheier, “School Health Report Cards” (see note 109); B. R. Morris, “Letters on Students’ Weight Ruffle
Parents,” New York Times, March 26 2002, p. F7.
116. Koplan, Liverman, and Kraak, Preventing Childhood Obesity (see note 3).
117. Scheier, “School Health Report Cards” (see note 109).
118. Ibid.
119. James Raczynski and others, “Establishing a Baseline to Evaluate Act 1220 of 2003: An Act of the Arkansas
General Assembly to Combat Childhood Obesity” (University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences College of
Public Health, 2005).
120. Health Policy Tracking Service, a Thomson West Business, State Actions to Promote Nutrition, Increase
Physical Activity, and Prevent Obesity: A Legislative Overview, July 11, 2005 (www.netscan.com/outside/HPTSServices.asp [August 22, 2005]).
121. J. A. Grunbaum, S. J. Rutman, and P. R. Sathrum, “Faculty and Staff Health Promotion: Results from the
School Health Policies and Programs Study 2000,” Journal of School Health 71, no. 7 (2001): 335–39.
122. U.S. Department of Education and National Center for Education Statistics, “Elementary and Secondary
Education—Table 82: Staff and Teachers in Public Elementary and Secondary School Systems, by State or
Jurisdiction, Fall 1995 to Fall 2001,” Digest of Education Statistics, 2003 (nces.ed.gov/programs/digest
/d03/tables/dt082.asp [July 5, 2005]).
123. D. J. Ballard, P. M. Kingery, and B. E. Pruitt, “School Worksite Health Promotion: An Interdependent
Process,” Journal of Health Education 22 (1991): 111–15.
138
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124. Mary Story and Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, “School-Based Nutrition Education Programs and Services for
Adolescents,” Adolescent Medicine: State of the Art Reviews 7 (1996): 287–302.
125. Grunbaum, Rutman, and Sathrum, “Faculty and Staff Health Promotion” (see note 121).
126. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Coordinated School Health Program” (see note 96); Grunbaum, Rutman, and Sathrum, “Faculty and Staff Health Promotion” (see note 121).
127. C. A. Galemore, “Worksite Wellness in the School Setting,” Journal of School Nursing 16, no. 2 (2000):
42–45.
128. C. C. Cox, R. Misra, and S. Aguillion, “Superintendents’ Perceptions of School-Site Health Promotion in
Missouri,” Journal of School Health 67, no. 2 (1997): 50–55.
129. Grunbaum, Rutman, and Sathrum, “Faculty and Staff Health Promotion” (see note 121).
130. A. Fiske and K. W. Cullen, “Effects of Promotional Materials on Vending Sales of Low-Fat Items in
Teachers’ Lounges,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 104, no. 1 (2004): 90–93; K. Resnicow
and others, “Results of the Teachwell Worksite Wellness Program,” American Journal of Public Health 88,
no. 2 (1998): 250–57.
131. Trust for America’s Health, “F as in Fat” (see note 16); Health Policy Tracking Service, State Actions to
Promote Nutrition (see note 120).
132. U.S. General Accounting Office, School Meal Programs (see note 40).
133. Health Policy Tracking Service, State Actions to Promote Nutrition (see note 120).
134. U.S. General Accounting Office, School Meal Programs: Competitive Foods Are Available in Many
Schools (see note 40).
135. Ibid.
136. U.S. Government Accountability Office, School Meal Programs (see note 47); Dianne Neumark-Sztainer
and others, “School Lunch and Snacking Patterns among High School Students: Associations with School
Food Environment and Policies,” International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2,
no. 14 (2005) (www.ijbnpa.org/content/2/1/14 [October 6, 2005]).
137. Trust for America’s Health, “F as in Fat” (see note 16).
138. Ibid.
139. Burgeson and others, “Physical Education and Activity” (see note 83).
140. Health Policy Tracking Service, State Actions to Promote Nutrition (see note 120).
141. J. C. Buzby, J. F. Guthrie, and L. S. Kantor, Evaluation of the USDA Fruit and Vegetable Pilot Program:
Report to Congress, Report no. E-FAN-03-006 (U.S. Department of Agriculture, May 2003).
142. Ibid.
143. Koplan, Liverman, and Kraak, Preventing Childhood Obesity (see note 3); Simone French and Mary
Story, “Obesity Prevention in Schools,” in Handbook of Pediatric Obesity: Etiology, Pathophysiology, and
Prevention, edited by M. I. Goran (Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, forthcoming); T. Lobstein, L. Baur, and
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139
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R. Uauy, “Obesity in Children and Young People: A Crisis in Public Health,” Obesity Reviews 5, suppl. 1
(2004): 4–104; K. Resnicow and T. N. Robinson, “School-Based Cardiovascular Disease Prevention Studies: Review and Synthesis,” Annals of Epidemiology S7, no. 1997 (1997): S14–31; K. Campbell and others,
“Interventions for Preventing Obesity in Childhood: A Systematic Review,” Obesity Reviews 2, no. 3
(2001): 149–57; Mary Story, “School-Based Approaches for Preventing and Treating Obesity,” International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders 23, suppl. 2 (1999): S43–51.
144. Campbell and others, “Interventions for Preventing Obesity in Childhood” (see note 143).
145. D. L. Katz and others, “Public Health Strategies for Preventing and Controlling Overweight and Obesity
in School and Worksite Settings,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 54, no. RR-10 (2005): 1–8.
146. T. N. Robinson, “Reducing Children’s Television Viewing to Prevent Obesity: A Randomized Controlled
Trial,” Journal of the American Medical Association 282, no. 16 (1999): 1561–67.
147. S. L. Gortmaker and others, “Reducing Obesity via a School-Based Interdisciplinary Intervention among
Youth: Planet Health,” Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 153, no. 4 (1999): 409–18.
148. J. James and others, “Preventing Childhood Obesity by Reducing Consumption of Carbonated Drinks:
Cluster Randomised Controlled Trial,” British Medical Journal 328, no. 7450 (2004): 1237 (erratum appears in British Medical Journal 328, no. 7450 [May 22, 2004]: 1236).
149. French and others, “An Environmental Intervention to Promote Lower-Fat Food Choices” (see note 66);
S. A. French and G. Stables, “Environmental Interventions to Promote Vegetable and Fruit Consumption
among Youth in School Settings,” Preventive Medicine 37, no. 6, pt. 1 (2003): 593–610; Cheryl L. Perry
and others, “A Randomized School Trial of Environmental Strategies to Encourage Fruit and Vegetable
Consumption among Children,” Health Education and Behavior 31, no. 1 (2004): 65–76; Simone A.
French and others, “Pricing Strategy to Promote Fruit and Vegetable Purchase in High School Cafeterias,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 97, no. 9 (1997): 1008–10; Simone A. French and others, “Pricing and Promotion Effects on Low-Fat Vending Snack Purchases: The CHIPS Study,” American
Journal of Public Health 91, no. 1 (2001): 112–17.
150. James F. Sallis and others, “Environmental Interventions for Eating and Physical Activity: A Randomized
Controlled Trial in Middle Schools,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 24 (2003): 209–17; J. F. Sallis and others, “The Effects of a 2-Year Physical Education Program (SPARK) on Physical Activity and Fitness in Elementary School Students: Sports, Play and Active Recreation for Kids,” American Journal of
Public Health 87, no. 8 (1997): 1328–34.
151. Ashlesha Datar and Roland Sturm, “Physical Education in Elementary School and Body Mass Index: Evidence from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study,” American Journal of Public Health 94, no. 9 (2004):
1501–06.
152. French and Story, “Obesity Prevention in Schools” (see note 143).
153. Ibid.
154. Wechsler and others, “Using the School Environment” (see note 43).
155. Martin Luther King Junior Middle School, “The Edible Schoolyard” (www.edibleschoolyard.org [May 20,
2005]).
140
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156. J. L. Morris and S. Zidenberg-Cherr, “Garden-Enhanced Nutrition Curriculum Improves Fourth-Grade
School Children’s Knowledge of Nutrition and Preferences for Some Vegetables,” Journal of the American
Dietetic Association 102, no. 1 (2002): 91–93.
157. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Travel and Environmental Implications of School Siting, Report
no. EPA 231-R-03-004 (Washington: 2003) (www.epa.gov/smartgrowth/pdf/school_travel.pdf [July 6,
2005)]).
158. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Barriers to Children Walking and Biking to School—United
States, 1999,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 51, no. 32 (2002): 701–03.
159. Sallis, “Behavioral and Environmental Interventions” (see note 78).
160. C. Tudor-Locke and others, “Objective Physical Activity of Filipino Youth Stratified for Commuting Mode
to School,” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 35, no. 3 (2003): 465–71.
161. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Barriers to Children Walking and Biking to School” (see
note 158).
162. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Travel and Environmental Implications of School Siting (see note
157).
163. Koplan, Liverman, and Kraak, Preventing Childhood Obesity (see note 3); U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency, Travel and Environmental Implications of School Siting (see note 157); Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Barriers to Children Walking and Biking to School” (see note 158).
164. “The Walking School Bus Information Website” (www.walkingschoolbus.org/ [June 25, 2005]); TudorLocke and others, “Objective Physical Activity of Filipino Youth” (see note 160).
165. Eugene Smolensky and Jennifer Appleton Gootman, Working Families and Growing Kids: Caring for
Children and Adolescents (Washington: National Academies Press, 2003).
166. Ibid.
167. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Healthy Schools for Healthy Kids (see note 35).
168. E. Obarzanek and C. A. Pratt, “Girls Health Enrichment Multi-Site Studies (GEMS): New Approaches to
Obesity Prevention among Young African-American Girls,” Ethnicity and Disease 13, no. 1, suppl. 1
(2003): S1–5.
169. Food Research and Action Center, “State of the States, 2005” (see note 24).
170. Fox, Hamilton, and Lin, Effects of Food Assistance and Nutrition Programs (see note 17).
171. M. T. Greenberg and others, “Enhancing School-Based Prevention and Youth Development through Coordinated Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning,” American Psychologist 58, no. 6–7 (2003): 466–74;
National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, Committee on Increasing High School Students’ Engagement and Motivation to Learn, Board on Children, Youth, and Families, and Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, Engaging Schools: Fostering High School Students’ Motivation to Learn (Washington: National Academies Press, 2004); K. L. Kumpfer and R. Alvarado,
“Family-Strengthening Approaches for the Prevention of Youth Problem Behaviors,” American Psychologist 58, no. 6–7 (2003): 457–65.
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172. Ibid.
173. National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, Engaging Schools (see note 171).
174. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Guidelines for School and Community Programs” (see note
75); Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Guidelines for School Health Programs to Promote
Lifelong Healthy Eating,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 45 (1996): 1–37; H. Wechsler and others, “The Role of Schools in Preventing Childhood Obesity,” The State Education Standard 5, no. 2
(2004): 4–12.
175. Koplan, Liverman, and Kraak, Preventing Childhood Obesity (see note 3).
142
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in Obesity Prevention
Mary Story, Karen M. Kaphingst, and Simone French
Summary
Mary Story, Karen Kaphingst, and Simone French argue that researchers and policymakers focused on childhood obesity have paid insufficient attention to child care. Although child care
settings can be a major force in shaping children’s dietary intake, physical activity, and energy
balance—and thus in combating the childhood obesity epidemic—researchers know relatively
little about either the nutrition or the physical activity environment in the nation’s child care facilities. What research exists suggests that the nutritional quality of meals and snacks may be
poor and activity levels may be inadequate.
Few uniform standards apply to nutrition or physical activity offerings in the nation’s child care
centers. With the exception of the federal Head Start program, child care facilities are regulated by states, and state rules vary widely. The authors argue that weak state standards governing physical activity and nutrition represent a missed opportunity to combat obesity. A relatively simple measure, such as specifying how much time children in day care should spend
being physically active, could help promote healthful habits among young children.
The authors note that several federal programs provide for the needs of low-income children in
child care. The Child and Adult Care Food Program, administered by the Department of Agriculture, provides funds for meals and snacks for almost 3 million children in child care each
day. Providers who receive funds must serve meals and snacks that meet certain minimal standards, but the authors argue for toughening those regulations so that meals and snacks meet
specific nutrient-based standards. The authors cite Head Start, a federal preschool program
serving some 900,000 low-income infants and children up to age five, as a model for other child
care programs as it has federal performance standards for nutrition.
Although many child care settings fall short in their nutritional and physical activity offerings,
they offer untapped opportunities for developing and evaluating effective obesity-prevention
strategies to reach both children and their parents.
www.futureofchildren.org
Mary Story is a professor in the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota, and the director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Healthy Eating Research Program. Karen M. Kaphingst is in the Division of Epidemiology
and Community Health, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota, and is the deputy director of the RWJF Healthy Eating Research Program. Simone French is a professor in the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota.
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T
he prevalence of overweight
and obesity among American
children has been increasing at
an alarming rate. Among preschool children aged two to
five, overweight has doubled over the past
thirty years. Almost one in every four
preschoolers is either overweight or at risk of
overweight.1 Prevalence rates are highest
among African American, Hispanic, and Native American preschoolers.
Of the nation’s 21 million preschool children,
13 million spend a substantial part of their
day in child care facilities.2 Although much
has been written on the role of schools in
obesity prevention, surprisingly little has
been written on how child care settings can
help combat childhood obesity. With so many
preschool children in attendance, child care
settings can be a major force in shaping children’s dietary intake, physical activity, and
energy balance.
Changing Trends in
Maternal Employment
Reliance on child care has grown rapidly in
the United States over the past three decades
because of changes in demographics, family
structure, gender roles, and families’ needs
for economic security. Traditionally, the number of women in the workforce has driven the
demand for child care.3 From 1970 to 2000,
the share of mothers in the labor force (either employed or looking for work) rose from
38 percent to 68 percent; for mothers of children up to age three the rate rose from 24
percent to 57 percent.4 Today 60 percent of
mothers with preschool-aged children are
employed, with 70 percent working full-time
and 30 percent part-time. Of women with
children aged six to seventeen, 75 percent are
employed; 78 percent work full-time and 22
percent, part-time.5 Mandatory work re144
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
quirements under the 1996 welfare reform
law increased the number of low-income parents who work and the number of their children who receive child care.6
Child Care Settings
Child care participation in the United States
is at an all-time high. Child care, in fact, is
now the norm. Parents and child care
providers are sharing responsibility for a
large and growing number of children during
important developmental years, making child
care an important setting in which to address
the problem of obesity.
Child Care Supply and Participation
According to a study sponsored by the National Child Care Association, Americans
paid approximately $38 billion for licensed
child care in 2001.7 Estimates indicate the
number of child care facilities in the nation
increased more than fourfold in the past
thirty years—from 25,000 in 1977, to 40,000
in 1987, and to more than 116,000 in 2004.8
A precise count of child care settings is not
possible for several reasons. First, facilities
open and close rapidly. Next, because many
family day care homes and some centers and
preschools are legally exempt from licensing
and registration requirements, they are
therefore not on record in state child care licensing offices. Finally, the estimated number of child care facilities does not take into
account care provided by nannies, babysitters, and relatives.9
Families choose among a variety of day care
options: centers (for groups of children in a
nonresidential setting, such as a business,
church, or school); small family child care
homes (typically for six or fewer children in
the day care provider’s home); large family, or
group, child care homes (typically for seven to
twelve children cared for by two providers in a
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provider’s home); in-home care (by a nonrelative, such as a nanny or au pair, in the family
home); and kith and kin care (by a relative,
neighbor, or friend of one family only).10
Child Care Patterns for
Preschool Children
Preschool children enter care as early as six
weeks of age and can be in care for as many
as forty hours a week until they reach school
age.11 Forty-one percent of preschool children are in child care for thirty-five or more
hours a week. Another 25 percent are in care
for fifteen to thirty-four hours a week, while
16 percent are in care for one to fourteen
hours. Eighteen percent spend no time in
child care.12
Nationwide, nearly half of children younger
than five with a working mother are cared for
in child care centers (32 percent) and family
child care homes (16 percent). About 24 percent are cared for by a parent, 23 percent by
another relative and 6 percent by a nanny or
babysitter. Approximately 80 percent of children aged five and younger with employed
mothers are in a child care arrangement for
an average of almost forty hours a week.13
Child care arrangements vary by race and
ethnicity. The 2001 National Household Education Survey collected information about
the types of child care arrangements used by
families.14 Some children participate in more
than one type of arrangement. Up through
age six, Hispanic children are least likely to
receive child care in a center-based setting
(20 percent) and most likely to be cared for
by parents only (53 percent). In addition, 23
percent receive in-home care by a relative,
and 12 percent receive in-home care by a
nonrelative. African American children are
most likely to receive care in a center-based
program (41 percent) and least likely to be
cared for in-home by a nonrelative (14 percent); 34 percent are cared for in-home by a
relative, and 26 percent receive parental care
only. For non-Hispanic white children, similar numbers receive parental care only (38
percent) and attend center-based programs
(35 percent), with 20 percent receiving inhome care by a relative and 19 percent being
cared for in-home by a nonrelative.
The percentage of children enrolled in formal child care arrangements also varies by
state.15 For example, in Minnesota 55 percent of children under age five are cared for
in child care centers or family day care
homes, as against 35 percent in California.
State differences may be due to demographic
and labor patterns, child care subsidies, and
costs and supply of child care.16
Child Care Patterns for Children
Aged Six to Fourteen
A large share of school-aged children also
participates in child care. Of the estimated
35 million U.S. children aged six to fourteen,
22 million (63 percent) have an employed
mother. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation, the distribution of primary nonschool
arrangements for these children was child
care centers (5 percent); nonrelative care, including day care homes, babysitters, and nannies (9 percent); organized activities (12 percent); parental care (37 percent); grandparent
care (14 percent); care by other relatives (12
percent); and self-care (12 percent). Schoolaged children spent a significant amount of
time in these nonschool arrangements: 63
percent of children aged six to fourteen spent
an average of twenty-one hours a week in the
care of someone other than a parent before
and after school. Children in center-based
care average twenty-one hours a week in that
setting; those in nonrelative care, such as
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family child care homes, average nineteen
hours a week.17
Racial and ethnic differences in child care
participation by setting are less pronounced
for school-aged children than for preschool
children.18 Most school-aged children rely on
parent, grandparent, or other relatives’ care
outside of school hours (61 percent of white
A high-quality diet for young
children provides sufficient
energy and nutrients to
promote normal growth and
development, to achieve and
maintain a healthy weight,
and to attain immediate and
long-term health.
children, 67 percent of African American children, and 69 percent of Hispanic children).
Nutrition
Obesity prevention involves maintaining energy balance at a healthy weight while achieving overall health and meeting nutritional
needs. Technically, energy balance means that
energy intake is equivalent to energy expenditure, resulting in no net weight gain or weight
loss. But children must be in a slightly positive energy balance to get the energy necessary for normal growth. In children, the goal
is to promote growth and development and
prevent excess weight gain. A primary obesityprevention approach emphasizes efforts that
can help normal-weight children maintain
that weight and help overweight children prevent further excess weight gain.19
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THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
Nutrition Recommendations
for Young Children
A high-quality diet for young children provides sufficient energy and nutrients to promote normal growth and development, to
achieve and maintain a healthy weight, and to
attain immediate and long-term health. The
Institute of Medicine Dietary Reference Intakes provide specific daily nutrient needs of
children.20 The Dietary Guidelines for Americans provide science-based dietary advice to
promote health and reduce the risk for obesity and other chronic diseases through diet
and physical activity for Americans older than
age two.21 The 2005 Dietary Guidelines make
five key recommendations. At least half the
grains consumed by children should be
whole grains. Children aged two to eight
should drink two cups a day of fat-free or
low-fat milk or equivalent milk products.
Children aged two and older should eat sufficient amounts of fruits and vegetables. Children aged two to three should limit their total
fat intake to 30 to 35 percent of calories, and
children aged four and older should consume
between 25 to 35 percent of calories from fat,
with most fats coming from sources of
polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty
acids. Finally, children should get at least
sixty minutes of physical activity on most,
preferably all, days of the week.
Poor diet is a major contributor, along with
physical inactivity, to the obesity epidemic.
To reverse the trend toward obesity, children
must have access to and consume such
healthful foods as fruits and vegetables, consume adequate portion sizes, limit intake of
fats and added sugars, and get plenty of physical activity. The diets of most U.S. children
do not meet the Dietary Guidelines.22 They
tend to be low in fruits and vegetables, calcium-rich foods, and fiber and to be high in
total fats, saturated and trans fats, salt, and
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added sugars. A recent study examined diet
quality trends among a nationally representative sample of preschool children aged three
to five between 1977 and 1998.23 Although
dietary quality improved slightly over those
years, total energy intake increased, as did
added sugars and excess juice consumption.
Consumption of grains, fruits, and vegetables
improved but was still well below recommended levels.
Table 1. Federal Child and Adult Care Food
Program, Fiscal Year 2004
Child care homes
Average daily participation of children
The overall diets of children must be improved. Early attention to diet would have
immediate nutritional benefits, would help
prevent obesity, and could reduce chronic
disease risk if healthful habits are carried into
adulthood. Clearly, establishing healthful dietary and physical activity behaviors needs to
begin in childhood. Child care settings can
lay the foundations for health and create an
environment to ensure that young children
are offered healthful foods and regular physical activity.
–0.6%
Change in child participation in past ten years
Number of participating family child care homes
157,522
Child care centers (includes Head Start)
Average daily participation of children
1,969,129
Change in child participation in past ten years
62.4%
Number of participating child care centers
Total federal funding
Diets of infants and toddlers are also of concern. In the Feeding Infants and Toddlers
Study, a national random sample of 3,022 infants and toddlers from four to twenty-four
months old, energy intakes were higher than
recommended, according to dietary recall
data, suggesting that many caregivers may be
overfeeding their children.24 Up to a third of
children aged seven to twenty-four months
ate no vegetables or fruits on the day of the
dietary recall. For fifteen- to eighteenmonth-olds, the vegetable most commonly
eaten was french fries. More than 25 percent
of nineteen- to twenty-four-month-olds ate
french fries or fried potatoes on any day, and
44 percent consumed a sweetened beverage.25 Although these studies did not distinguish between foods and beverages consumed at home and at child care, they point
to troubling aspects of young children’s diets.
913,071
44,323
$1,918,190,945
Sources: Food Research and Action Center, “State of the States,
2005: A Profile of Food and Nutrition Programs across the Nation”
(www.frac.org [March 22, 2005]); USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) Nutrition Assistance Programs (available at www.fns.
usda.gov/fns/ [May 21, 2005]).
Child Care Meals and Snacks:
The Child and Adult Care Food Program
The Child and Adult Care Food Program
(CACFP) provides federal funds for meals
and snacks served to children in licensed
child care homes, child care centers, Head
Start programs, after-school care programs,
and homeless shelters (see table 1). The program, begun as a pilot program in 1968, became permanent in 1978 and is administered
by the Department of Agriculture’s Food and
Nutrition Service through grants to the
states. In most states, the state educational
agency administers the program.26
Participation and reach. In 2004, CACFP
reached almost 2 million children a day in
child care centers and Head Start programs
and more than 913,000 children in family
child care homes. More than 44,000 child
care centers and 157,000 family child care
homes participated. On an average day,
CACFP served meals and snacks to 2.8 million children in these settings.27
Eligibility. Programs that may participate in
CACFP include eligible public or private
nonprofit child care centers, for-profit child
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care centers serving 25 percent or more lowincome children, after-school programs,
Head Start programs, and other institutions
that are licensed or approved to provide day
care services. Because family child care
homes tend to be very small businesses, they
can participate in CACFP only if they have a
recognized sponsor to serve as an intermediary between them and the responsible state
agency. Sponsors are responsible for recruiting, for determining that homes meet the
In 1996, welfare reform
legislation changed the
reimbursement structure for
child care homes to target
benefits more specifically to
homes serving low-income
children.
CACFP eligibility criteria, for providing
training and other support to family child
care providers, for monitoring homes to ensure they comply with federal and state regulations, for verifying the homes’ claims for reimbursement, and for distributing the meal
reimbursements to the homes.28
Funding reimbursement is provided for up to
two meals and one snack, or one meal and
two snacks, for each child. The Department
of Agriculture also makes available donated
agricultural commodities or cash in lieu of
commodities. Subsidies for food served to
children in child care centers are calculated
differently than for those paid to family and
group day care homes. Under CACFP regulations, meals and snacks served to children in
child care centers, Head Start, and outside148
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
of-school programs are reimbursed at rates
based on a child’s eligibility for free, reducedprice, or paid meals.29 Children in Head Start
programs categorically receive free meals and
snacks, thus qualifying the Head Start center
for the highest reimbursement rate.
Reimbursement for meals served in day care
homes is based on eligibility for Tier I rates
(which targets higher levels of reimbursement to low-income areas, providers, or children) or lower Tier II rates (not located in a
low-income area nor operated by a lowincome provider).30 In 1996, welfare reform
legislation changed the reimbursement structure for child care homes to target benefits
more specifically to homes serving lowincome children.31 As a result, the number of
low-income children served in CACFP
homes grew by 80 percent between 1995 and
1999, and the number of meal reimbursements for low-income children doubled.32 A
family child care provider serving five lowincome children can receive about $4,000 a
year in CACFP funds.33 In fiscal year 2002,
the program’s total cost, including cash and
commodity subsidies, administrative costs,
and a payment to states for audits and oversight, was $1.8 billion—$100 million more
than the previous year’s expenditures.34
Meal pattern requirements. To be eligible for
federal reimbursement, providers must serve
meals and snacks that meet established meal
pattern requirements modeled on the foodbased menu planning guidelines in the National School Lunch Program and School
Breakfast Program. The meal patterns specify foods to be offered at each meal and snack
as well as minimum portion sizes, which vary
by age.35 The four food categories are: milk;
vegetables, fruit, or 100 percent juice; grains
or breads; and meat and meat alternates.
Fluid milk must be served at all meals and
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The Role of Child Care Settings in Obesity Prevention
Summary of Regulations and Funding for the Child and Adult Care Food Program
Regulations
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service administers the Child and Adult
Care Food Program through grants to the states. Program standards include meal pattern requirements for children in defined age groups: one to two years, three to five years, and six to twelve
years. The program also provides a separate meal pattern for infants.
To be eligible for reimbursement, breakfast, lunch, supper, and snacks must contain specified
minimum amounts of foods from some or all of the following four components: milk, vegetable or
fruit or full-strength (100 percent) juice, bread and grains, and meat and meat alternates. Foods
and beverages served to children must be approved, or “creditable,” to be reimbursed. The Department of Agriculture, state agencies, and sponsoring organizations make these determinations
and issue guidelines and educational materials for providers.
Funding
The CACFP program is an entitlement program. As long as they follow regulations, participating
nonresident child care centers and family or group day care homes are guaranteed to receive
funds to offer free or reduced-price meals. In addition, outside-of-school programs are entitled to
funds for snacks. The program is financed in two ways.
First, child care centers and outside-of-school programs receive a per-meal reimbursement, up to
two meals and one snack (or two snacks and one meal), based on the family income of the child
receiving the meal. The institution must determine each enrolled participant’s eligibility for free
and reduced-price meals. Children in families below 130 percent of the poverty line receive free
meals. Children in families between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty line receive reducedprice meals. Children in families above 185 percent of the poverty line receive a small per-meal
subsidy for full-price (“paid”) meals.
The per-meal subsidies are indexed for inflation. In fiscal year 2006, the per-meal reimbursement
rates in the forty-eight contiguous U.S. states are: $1.27 for free breakfasts, $2.32 for free
lunches and suppers, and $0.63 for free snacks; $0.97 for reduced-price breakfasts, $1.92 for
reduced-price lunches and suppers, and $0.31 for reduced-price snacks; and $0.23 for paid
breakfasts, $0.22 for paid lunches and suppers, and $0.05 for paid snacks.
Second, family and group day care homes receive reimbursement for up to two meals and one
snack (or one meal and two snacks). To participate, family and group child care homes must have
a public or private (nonprofit) sponsor. In this instance, the subsidy rate is determined by the area
where the child care home is located or by the income level of the provider, with providers in lowincome neighborhoods or with low incomes themselves receiving higher subsidies.
For fiscal year 2006 for the forty-eight contiguous U.S. states, Tier I homes, which are located in
low-income districts or operated by a provider with a household income that is at or below 185
percent of the poverty line, are reimbursed at the rate of $1.06 for breakfasts, $1.96 for lunches
and suppers, and $0.58 for snacks. Tier II homes, which are not located in low-income districts
nor operated by a low-income provider, are reimbursed at the rate of $0.39 for breakfasts, $1.18
for lunches and suppers, and $0.16 for snacks. (A Tier II provider can apply for the Tier I rate for
low-income children in the family child care home.)
Sources: Code of Federal Regulations 226.20; Federal Register 70, no. 136, July 18, 2005, pp. 41196–97.
Notes: Rates for both sets of financing are somewhat higher for Alaska and Hawaii. In addition to the rates for lunch and supper, institutions
may also receive 17.5 cents in commodities (or cash in lieu of commodities) as additional assistance for each lunch and supper served.
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may also be served as part of a snack. No requirements govern whether children older
than two should be served whole, 2 percent,
1 percent, or skim milk. Milk and 100 percent fruit or vegetable juices are the only
beverages that are reimbursable through the
program. CACFP regulations pertain only to
foods and beverages for which the provider is
seeking federal reimbursement. They do not
preclude providers from offering additional
low-nutrition, high-calorie foods.
Need for improved nutritional quality in
CACFP. CACFP meals and snacks are not required to meet specific nutrient-based standards such as those implemented in the mid1990s for the school lunch and school
breakfast meals.36 The Healthy Meals for
Healthy Americans Act of 1995 required that
these school meals be consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, including fat
and saturated fat content. Moreover, as
noted, the CACFP regulations do not prevent providers from offering additional lownutrition, high-calorie foods or beverages for
which they are not seeking reimbursement.
As with schools, comprehensive nutrition
policies for the total child care food environment are needed.
Many child care facilities depend on CACFP
to defray expenses, and many parents, especially low-income working families, depend
on these settings for a substantial portion of
their children’s nutritional intake.37 CACFP
motivates a family child care home to become licensed, thus coming under applicable
health, quality, and safety standards. It interacts regularly with family child care providers, providing monitoring, training, including nutrition education, and other
assistance. Further, CACFP is an entitlement program, meaning that all eligible
homes and centers must be allowed to partic150
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
ipate and that all eligible children being
cared for in the homes and centers must be
served. Immigrant status does not affect eligibility status. CACFP provides a basic nutritional safety net for low-income children.
Strengthening the regulations to make
CACFP meals, snacks, and beverages comply
with the Dietary Guidelines, including fat
and saturated fat content, could further improve children’s nutrition and help prevent
child obesity. Increasing the number of
licensed family child care homes to enable
them to participate in CACFP could extend
healthful eating and quality child care to
many more at-risk children.38
Nutrition Quality of Foods
in Child Care Settings
Surprisingly little research has been done to
assess the nutritional quality of foods in child
care settings. Most studies have focused on
CACFP providers. A recent research review
identified ten descriptive studies of CACFP
in child care settings published between 1982
and 2004, four of which were national studies.39 Because CACFP does not have nutrient-based standards, almost all of the studies
have used the recommendations of the
American Dietetic Association (ADA) as
evaluation benchmarks. The ADA recommends that food served to children in care
for a full day (eight hours or more) meet at
least one-half to two-thirds of their daily
needs for energy and nutrients and that food
served to children in part-time care (four to
seven hours) provide at least one-third of
their daily needs. These benchmarks are requirements for the Head Start nutrition program.40 The ADA also recommends that
child care meals and snacks be consistent
with the Dietary Guidelines.
The only comprehensive national study, done
in 1995, collected meal and snack data on a
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nationally representative sample of 1,962
CACFP-participating child care sites (family
child care homes and child care centers, including Head Start centers) and food intake
data on children aged five and older at 372
centers or homes. Nutrient analysis showed
that the most common combinations of meals
and snacks offered (breakfast, lunch, and one
to two snacks) provided 61 to 71 percent of
children’s daily energy needs and more than
two-thirds of the recommended dietary allowance for key nutrients. Meals and snacks
had an average of 13 percent of calories from
saturated fat, exceeding the Dietary Guidelines of no more than 10 percent. Few
providers offered lunches that met the Dietary Guidelines’ goals for total fat or saturated fat; 50 percent served lunches with
more than 35 percent of the calories from fat.
Providers that met the dietary fat recommendation were more likely to serve 1 percent or
skim milk and fruit, and they were less likely
to serve french fries, fried meats, hot dogs,
cold cuts, and high-fat condiments. On average 90 percent of the breakfasts and 87 percent of the lunches complied with the meal
pattern requirements. The food component
most often missing from meals was fruits and
vegetables.41
A 1999 national study of CACFP meals and
snacks conducted in 542 Tier II child care
homes (not located in a low-income area nor
operated by a low-income provider) found
that meals and snacks offered to children
aged two and older provided, on average,
more than two-thirds of the recommended
dietary allowance for calories and key nutrients.42 Mean saturated fat content exceeded
national recommendations. Less than onethird of the morning snacks (31 percent) and
afternoon snacks (28 percent) included fresh,
canned, or dried fruit. Less than 25 percent
of day care homes offered any fresh fruit as
snacks. Only 3 percent of the afternoon
snacks included vegetables.
The few smaller-scale studies that have evaluated the menus in child care settings, primarily CACFP sites, show cause for concern.43
One study collected data on 171 child care
centers that participated in CACFP in seven
states.44 It collected copies of menus and
menu records for meals and snacks for ten
consecutive days. Meal patterns were incon-
CACFP meals and snacks are
not required to meet specific
nutrient-based standards
such as those implemented in
the mid-1990s for the school
lunch and breakfast meals.
sistent with the Dietary Guidelines regarding
fat, sodium, fruits and vegetables, and serving
a variety of foods. Menus were high in fat and
seldom provided recommended servings of
vegetables. Cookies were frequently on the
menus. Another study evaluated menus in
nine Texas child care centers participating in
CACFP and found that only about half the
centers included fresh produce; among those
that did, the amount was frequently minimal.
Food service staff did not always understand
the CACFP requirements and had limited
nutrition knowledge. One staff member said
he never served fresh fruit because he didn’t
“know how far an apple will go,” but he knew
exactly how much applesauce to ladle from a
can to make the minimum portion required
by CACFP. Another staff member thought
that bottled orange drink was “full-strength
juice” because no water was added.45
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A recent study compared the dietary intakes
of fifty children aged three to nine who attended nine child care centers in Texas with
the recommendations of the Food Guide
Pyramid for Young Children.46 Researchers
observed children’s meals and snacks during
child care for three consecutive days and
took reports on dietary intakes of the children before and after child care from the
parents. During child care, the three-yearolds ate enough fruit, but not enough grains,
vegetables, or dairy to meet two-thirds of the
Food Guide Pyramid for Young Children recommendations. The four- and five-year-old
children consumed adequate dairy only. The
vegetables and grains served most often were
potatoes and refined flour products. Intakes
at home did not compensate. These findings
suggest that children attending child care
centers are not getting adequate diets at child
care centers or at home.
In summary, relatively little is known about
the dietary quality and types of foods and
beverages offered in child care facilities, especially those that are not licensed or regulated and do not participate in the CACFP
program. The nutritional quality of meals and
snacks may be poor. Increased attention
should thus be paid to the nutritional adequacy of foods served in child care settings.
More research is needed on the current food
environment in child care, including what
foods are served, their nutritional quality, and
staff training on nutrition. It has been ten
years since any national survey described the
nutrient content of meals and snacks in child
care centers and day care homes participating in CACFP, and that survey included only
children older than five.47 Given the increased number and use of child care facilities over the past decade, an updated national
survey is needed to assess nutrition quality
and practices, including types and portion
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sizes of foods and beverages offered and consumed by children in child care settings.
Physical Activity
Physical activity is crucial to overall health
and to obesity prevention.48 Reduced physical activity is a likely contributor to increasing
obesity rates among children of all ages.49
Physical Activity Recommendations
for Young Children
The 2005 Dietary Guidelines recommend
that children and adolescents engage in at
least sixty minutes of physical activity on
most, preferably all, days of the week.50 The
National Association for Sport and Physical
Education’s guidelines recommend that toddlers get at least thirty minutes daily of structured physical activity and preschoolers
should have at least sixty minutes. It also recommends that toddlers and preschoolers engage in at least sixty minutes a day of unstructured physical activity and not be sedentary
for more than sixty minutes at a time except
when sleeping. Thus, preschool-aged children
should have at least two hours of exercise a
day, half in structured physical activity and
the remainder in unstructured, free-play settings.51 Children aged five to twelve should
have at least sixty minutes of daily exercise.
To help meet the daily physical activity recommendations for preschoolers, experts recommend incorporating planned physical activity
into the daily preschool schedule.52 Structured
activity sessions should be short, about fifteen
to twenty minutes, and should emphasize a
wide variety of different movements.53 States
vary widely in their physical activity requirements for child care settings, but most address
the subject in general, non-quantified terms.
The failure to specify how much time children
should spend being physically active is an
overlooked opportunity to increase physical
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activity among young children in settings
where many spend much of their day.
Physical Activity in Child Care Settings
Surprisingly little is known about the activity
levels of children in child care. Russell Pate
and several colleagues used accelerometers,
or small electronic devices worn around the
waist, to record minute-by-minute activity
levels of 281 children attending nine preschools (Head Start, church-based, and private) in South Carolina.54 The children, who
wore accelerometers for roughly 4.4 hours a
day for an average of 6.6 days, participated in
a mean of seven minutes an hour of moderate
to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) at the
preschools. Activity levels varied widely
among schools, averaging from four to ten
minutes an hour. The preschool that a child
attended was a significant predictor of
MVPA. The authors speculated that a child
attending preschool for eight hours would engage in about one hour of MVPA and would
be unlikely to engage in another hour of
MVPA outside the preschool setting, suggesting that many preschool children may not be
meeting physical activity recommendations.
Another study assessed the physical activity
level of 214 children aged three to five enrolled in ten child care centers in South
Dakota. Each child wore an accelerometer
for two continuous days (forty-eight hours).55
The child care center was the strongest predictor of physical activity levels, with more
than 50 percent of the daily activity counts
occurring between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. These
studies suggest that school policies and practices greatly influence the overall physical activity of the nation’s young children.56 The
quality and quantity of physical activity in
child care settings can vary depending on indoor space, gross motor play equipment, outdoor play area, group size, and the education
and training of child care staff.57
The only study to evaluate weight-related differences in physical activity during the preschool day compared the physical activity of
overweight and normal-weight three- to fiveyear-old children while attending preschool.58
The study assessed 245 children, recruited
from nine preschools, on multiple days while
using both direct observation and accelerometers. It found that overweight boys were significantly less active than normal-weight
boys, though it found no weight-related activ-
The 2005 Dietary Guidelines
recommend that children and
adolescents engage in at least
sixty minutes of physical
activity on most, preferably
all, days of the week.
ity differences in girls. Overweight children
may thus be at increased risk for further gains
in body fat because of low physical activity
levels during the preschool day.
Another study of 266 three- to five-year-old
children from nine preschools found that preschool policies and practices influenced children’s physical activity.59 Children in
preschools with frequent field trips (four or
more a month) and college-educated teachers
had significantly higher levels of MVPA. Children in higher-quality preschools, measured
by the number of children per classroom, the
educational backgrounds of the teachers, and
specific features of the facilities, had lower
levels of sedentary behavior. Similar levels of
physical activity were observed in private,
church-based, and Head Start preschool settings. On average, the children failed to meet
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current recommendations for physical activity.60 Children in this study were engaged in
MVPA about 27 percent of the time, meaning
that on average they would have about thirtytwo minutes of MVPA in two play periods
lasting an hour each. Most notably, the study
found higher levels of physical activity in
preschools with policies and practices that
promoted physical activity.
We could find no studies that assessed children’s television and video viewing and computer use in child care centers or day care
homes, although it has been reported that
children spend more time watching TV in
child care homes than in centers.61 Many
studies have found a positive link between
children’s television viewing and obesity, and
the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting children’s total television
viewing time to no more than one to two
hours of quality programming a day.62 Future
studies should examine television policies
and practice in child care facilities.
Research has found that many preschool-aged
children are not meeting the recommended
guidelines of two hours of physical activity a
day and that children in child care settings
need more physical activity.63 How active children are in preschools is largely determined
by how much time they have to play freely in
settings conducive to physical activity, such as
outdoor playgrounds, parks, or gyms. One way
to ensure that preschoolers get adequate exercise is to provide more time in free-play settings and add structured physical activity to
their program.64 As yet, however, no broad
policies govern physical activity for preschool
children in child care. Although several national groups have published recommendations, no requirements exist at the federal
level. Physical activity policies, where they
exist, are set by states and facilities.
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Obesity-Prevention Interventions
in Preschool Settings
Child care settings offer untapped opportunities for developing and evaluating effective
obesity-prevention strategies to reach both
children and their parents. But we could locate few published obesity-prevention studies with preschool children.65 In Hip-Hop to
Health Jr., a study of twelve Chicago Head
Start preschool programs serving minority
children, children in half the preschools participated in a fourteen-week (forty minutes
three times a week) program of healthful eating and exercise. Their parents received
weekly newsletters with information mirroring the children’s curriculum. Children in the
other six preschools served as a control
group. Children in the program had significantly smaller increases in BMI than did children in the control group at both the oneyear and two-year follow-ups.66 But the study
found no significant treatment group differences in food intake or physical activity.
Another study worth noting—and one with
implications for obesity-prevention programs—is the “Healthy Start” project. A cardiovascular risk-reduction study involving
1,296 low-income, predominantly minority
preschool children in nine Head Start centers
in New York, the project modified the food
service in some centers and left food service
in some centers unchanged as a control.67
The food service intervention reduced the fat
and saturated fat content of preschool meals
and reduced children’s consumption of saturated fat while at preschool without compromising their intake of energy and essential
nutrients, thus demonstrating the feasibility
of an intervention to change food service in
child care centers.
School-based interventions to reduce television watching in elementary school children,
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including one conducted by T. N. Robinson,
have reported reductions in body fat.68 One
intervention, which involved preschoolers
from 2.6 to 5.5 years old, almost all of whom
were white, aimed to reduce at-home television viewing.69 Children in eight child care
centers received a seven-session program to
reduce television viewing as part of a healthpromotion curriculum; children in eight control centers received a safety and injuryprevention program. Parents were given
take-home educational materials and participated in parent-child activities. Parents reported that children in the intervention
group watched television at home an average
of 4.7 hours less a week than children in the
control group—a reduction similar to those
reported by Robinson.70 But children in the
intervention and in the control group had no
significant differences in body fat. Longer
and more intensive interventions that target
other modifiable obesity risk factors may
yield greater results.
Reducing consumption of sweetened beverages, including juice, both in child care settings and at home may be an effective obesity-prevention strategy. Several studies
indicate that sweetened beverages may contribute to the increased prevalence of obesity
among preschool children. One analysis of
National Health and Nutrition Examination
Survey data found a positive link between the
consumption of carbonated soft drinks and
overweight in all age groups, including twoto five-year-olds.71 Another examined the association between sweet drink consumption
and overweight among 10,904 low-income
preschool children aged two and three at
baseline and then looked at their weight and
height one year later.72 Sweet drinks included
juices, fruit drinks, and sodas. Forty-one percent of the children consumed these drinks
at least three times a day. Energy intake in-
creased as the consumption of sweet drinks
increased. For example, those who consumed
less than one drink a day had a mean intake
of 1,425 calories a day, as against 2,005 calories a day for those who consumed three or
more a day. Preschool children who were at
risk for overweight or who were overweight
at baseline and who consumed more than
Reducing consumption of
sweetened beverages,
including juice, both in child
care settings and at home
may be an effective obesityprevention strategy.
one drink a day were significantly more likely
to become or remain overweight.
A cross-sectional study in 1997 found that
two- to five-year-old children who drank
twelve or more ounces of fruit juice a day
were more likely (32 percent as against 9 percent) to be obese than those who drank less
juice.73 Not all studies have found a link between juice consumption and overweight,
but the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children aged one to six drink
no more than four to six ounces of fruit juice
a day.74 Fruit juice and fruit drinks are easily
overconsumed by toddlers and young children because they taste good. They are also
conveniently packaged and can be carried
around during the day. Because juice is
viewed as nutritious, child care providers or
parents may not set limits. Like soda, however, it can contribute to obesity. Whole fruit
should be encouraged as an alternative because of the fiber benefit and because whole
fruit takes longer to eat.
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It is not known how much sweetened beverages or juice children consume in child care
settings and at home. National data indicate
that energy intake, added sugar as a share of
total energy, and excess juice consumption
(more than six ounces a day) increased significantly among preschoolers between 1977 and
1998.75 Researchers need to assess sweetened
beverage intake among preschoolers in child
care facilities and to conduct interventions to
remove fruit drinks and soda from child care,
to limit juice to six ounces a day, and to examine the effect on weight status.
Head Start
Head Start, a federal preschool program
serving infants and children up to age five,
includes a varied mix of programs—education, health, nutrition, social services, and
parental involvement—that presents a
unique opportunity to combat childhood
obesity. Created in 1965, Head Start was designed to help break the cycle of poverty by
providing preschool children of low-income
families with a comprehensive program to
meet their educational, emotional, social,
health, and nutritional needs.76 In 2003,
19,200 Head Start sites throughout the country reached more than 900,000 children. The
program is racially diverse, and most children
are three (34 percent) or four (53 percent)
years old.77 Although Head Start has touched
millions of children’s lives, it reaches only
about 40 percent of those who are eligible.78
One objective of Head Start is to ensure that
all children are linked to an ongoing source of
health care.79 The emphasis on continuous
primary care means that children’s height and
weight are monitored and that parents receive
guidance on nutrition and physical activity.
Head Start maintains a Child Health Record
for each child and requires a health screening
within forty-five days of enrollment.80 Al156
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though each child’s height and weight are
measured and BMI calculated as part of a
routine health examination, it is not clear how
these data are used on an individual basis or
what information is given to the parents. Nor
is it clear whether the BMI data collected are
analyzed at a state or national level or used for
surveillance or monitoring.
Head Start is also a vital source of nutrition
for low-income children. Its federal performance standards require that its meals and
snacks provide at least one-third of the daily
nutritional needs of children in a part-day
center-based setting and one-half to twothird of the needs of children in a full-day
program.81 Head Start sites participate in the
CACFP program and must have a registered
dietitian review and evaluate their menus.
Performance standards also require that parent education activities include “opportunities to assist individual families with food
preparation and nutritional skills.”82
Head Start’s federal regulations also require
that settings provide opportunities for outdoor
and indoor active play, adequate indoor and
outdoor space, equipment for active play, and
opportunities to develop gross and fine motor
skills. The regulations do not specify the
amount, frequency, and type of physical activity. No standards or rules govern television use.
Overall, evaluations of Head Start show many
benefits for children, families, and communities, though little research has focused on obesity prevention.83 The only published study to
date is Hip-Hop to Health Jr., described
above.84 Because of its multiple components
and because it serves low-income, multiethnic
children who are at high risk of overweight,
Head Start could well be used to strengthen
and expand obesity-prevention efforts. The
program has national reach and could signifi-
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An Innovative State Program
A promising pilot intervention called Nutrition and Physical Activity Self-Assessment for Child Care
(NAP SACC) was launched in North Carolina in 2003.1 Funded by the Centers for Disease Control
and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, the program’s goal is to promote healthful eating and physical activity in young children in child care and preschool settings. The intervention examines the feasibility of using local health professionals to help child care centers assess
and improve their nutrition and physical activity environments. The state implemented the pilot in
fifteen child care centers, with four control centers. Using an assessment tool with nine nutrition
and six physical activity areas, centers self-assessed their policies and practices. Based on the assessments, center staff identified specific areas for improvement. Local health professionals conducted workshops for the center staff and provided ongoing support and technical assistance. The
second phase of the project is now under way in 102 child care centers.
1. Nutrition and Physical Activity Self-Assessment for Child Care (NAP SACC) Website (www.napsacc.org [March 25, 2005]).
cantly improve healthful eating and physical activity patterns of young children. Interventions
and policy changes could focus on ensuring
that meals and snacks adhere to the Dietary
Guidelines, that physical activity is increased,
and that parents are actively involved. BMI
screening results could be provided to parents
and health providers and could be used for surveillance on state and national levels.
Regulation of Child Care Programs
With the exception of Head Start, the states
regulate child care facilities. Each state sets
and enforces specific health and safety requirements, which regulated providers must
meet to operate legally.85 All states set minimum health, safety, and nutrition standards
for providers. They generally regulate child
care homes through licensing, registration,
and certification. Most states require family
child care providers to be licensed if they
care for more than four children. In many
states, licensing or registration is voluntary
for providers caring for four or fewer children. Almost all child care centers are regulated or licensed in some way.86
No uniform quality standards govern all child
care and early education programs nation-
wide, and many programs are exempt from
any regulation or licensing requirements.87
Although regulations vary across states, they
focus mostly on basic safety and health requirements, such as keeping smoke detectors
in working order; locking cabinets that contain dangerous materials; specifying the minimum area for indoor or outdoor space, staffchild ratios, the minimum age of caregivers,
and preservice training qualifications and inservice requirements for staff; and ensuring
that children’s immunizations are up to
date.88 Regulations regarding nutrition, physical activity, and media use vary widely across
the states and are reviewed below. The
American Dietetic Association, American
Academy of Pediatrics, American Public
Health Association, and National Resource
Center for Health and Safety in Child Care
have published recommendations, performance standards, and benchmarks for nutrition, food service, and developmentally appropriate activities in child care settings.89
Although setting and enforcing child care requirements are primarily state and local responsibilities, the federal government requires states to have basic safety and health
regulations in place to receive funds from the
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Child Care and Development Block Grant.
This federal program subsidizes child care
costs for low-income families, helping them
afford quality child care and removing a barrier to parental employment.90 It is a significant public investment. In 2004, the government provided $4.8 billion.91 To get these
funds, states must certify that health and
safety requirements are in place and that
both regulated and nonregulated providers
being paid with block grant funds are in compliance. Washington does not, however, stipulate the contents of the requirements or the
means to enforce them, and states vary
widely on these points.
Nonregulated Child Care Providers
Most states do not regulate all types of child
care providers. Nonregulated providers need
not comply with state regulations and are not
subject to state enforcement. Some family
child care providers caring for small numbers
of children are also exempt from regulation,
and some states exempt certain types of center-based programs, such as those run by religious groups, school-based preschool, schoolbased after-school programs, or centers
operating part-day or part-year only.92 Nonregulated providers who receive funds from
the federal block grant must, however, meet
state and local health and safety requirements.
National advocacy groups have expressed
concern about the gaps in child care regulation. The National Health and Safety Performance Standards for Out-of-Home Child
Care assert that “every state should have a
statute that identifies the regulatory agency
and mandates the licensing and regulation of
all full-time and part-time out-of-home care
of children, regardless of setting, except care
provided by parents or legal guardians, grandparents, siblings, aunts, or uncles or when a
family engages an individual to care solely for
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THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
their children.”93 The National Association
for the Education of Young Children states
that “any program providing care and education to children from two or more unrelated
families should be regulated; there should be
no exemptions from this principle.”94
Regulatory Enforcement
The state child care licensing office enforces
its state’s child care regulations. With current
tight fiscal climates in most states and competing priorities for limited funds, states must
make choices about the extent to which they
can reasonably carry out this enforcement and
the types of providers who will be affected.95
Regulatory systems in many states are not
funded to enforce licensing regulations effectively.96 Regulatory burdens also affect
providers, and costs can be passed along to
parents. Providers may choose to leave the
market—or choose not to be licensed—if regulatory practices become too cumbersome.
Regulations Governing Food,
Physical Activity, and Media Use
The National Resource Center for Health and
Safety in Child Care, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health
Resources and Services Administration, maintains a website that provides links to the complete child care licensing standards for all fifty
states and the District of Columbia.97 Using
this website, we recently conducted an analysis of state child care licensing standards for
nutrition, physical activity, and media use. We
examined licensing regulations for child care
centers, small family child care homes (typically caring for six or fewer children), and
large family and group child care homes (usually with seven to twelve children).
We found not only that regulations vary considerably from state to state but that, within a
state, regulations may vary for different types
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of child care settings. Typically child care centers are most heavily regulated, followed by
large family and group child care homes, with
small family child care homes the least heavily
regulated. As noted, many states exempt small
family child care homes from licensing
requirements and instead rely on voluntary
registration. Five states—Delaware, Georgia,
Illinois, Mississippi, and Tennessee—have particularly comprehensive policies on nutrition,
physical activity, and media use. In the following discussion of licensing regulations in these
areas, we describe a state as having a specific
regulation if the regulation is mandatory in at
least one child care setting.
Nutrition
State nutrition regulations vary widely. Thirty
states require the Child and Adult Care Food
Program meal patterns or have similar requirements. Fifteen states specify the share
of children’s daily nutritional requirements to
be provided per meal or based on the length
of time in care, and twenty-one states specify
the number of meals and snacks to be offered
to children based on length of time in care.
Just two states, Michigan and West Virginia,
require that meals and snacks must follow
the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Mississippi regulations refer to the Dietary
Guidelines, noting that they can “provide assistance in planning meals for ages two (2)
and older, which will promote health and
prevent disease.”98 Ten states limit foods and
beverages of low nutritional value. Five states
regulate vending machines. Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana prohibit vending machines
in areas used by children. Arkansas permits
vending machines in school-age settings provided they are not the only source of snacks
and beverages. Mississippi requires food in
vending machines to meet the state’s nutrition regulations for meals and snacks in child
care settings.
Physical Activity
Most states specify that the daily program
should promote physical development, including large and small muscle activity; have
a balance of active and quiet activities, indoor
and outdoor activities, and individual and
group activities; include age- and developmentally appropriate activities, equipment,
and supplies; and provide enough materials
and equipment to avoid excessive competition and long waits. Thirty-three states and
the District of Columbia require that the
program provide large muscle, or gross
motor, activity or development. Nine states
require “vigorous” physical activity for children. No states use the term “moderate” to
describe the appropriate level of activity. Just
two states, Alaska and Massachusetts, specify
how long children should engage in physical
activity. Alaska mandates “a minimum of 20
minutes of vigorous physical activity for every
three hours the facility is open between the
hours of 7:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m.” Massachusetts calls for “thirty minutes of physical activity every day.” Alaska’s regulations pertain
to all types of child care settings; the Massachusetts rule affects only child care homes.
Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia require that children in child care centers
and homes have time outdoors each day,
health and weather permitting. Eight of
these states and the District of Columbia
specify how long children should be outdoors; most require at least one hour a day.
The District of Columbia and Mississippi require the most daily outdoor time—two
hours for a full-day program and at least
thirty minutes for a part-day program.
Media Use
Twenty-two states regulate media use, including television, computer, video, video
game, radio, and electronic game use. Most
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simply define appropriate or inappropriate
content or define acceptable use of media
within the program of activities (for example,
media should be used with discretion and not
as a substitute for planned activities). Only
nine states specify time limits on screen time.
Five set a maximum of two hours a day; the
others allow less time.
Quality Child Care
Most children in the United States now
spend some time in child care during their
critical developmental years. A body of evidence has accumulated to show that the quality of care has a lasting impact on a child’s
well-being and ability to learn.99 High-quality
care and early education help children prepare for school, ready to succeed; improve
their skills; and stay safe while their parents
work.100 But quality care arrangements are
hard to find, particularly for low-income parents.101 Much of the care available in the
United States is poor to mediocre.102
Strong state licensing requirements, expanded to apply to most care settings, can
help ensure children’s health and well-being.
Stricter licensing requirements, such as low
staff-to-child ratios and adequate training for
providers, can help improve the quality of
care. Providers who care for children on a
regular basis play an essential role in children’s development and experiences.103
Properly trained and educated teachers enhance children’s development. Recruiting
and retaining qualified staff pose significant
challenges, however, when providers’ salaries
average $17,610 a year, often without benefits or paid leave.104 Most states do not require providers to have even a basic knowledge of child development, and they require
little or no training before allowing providers
to work with children. Several national organizations have called for uniform training
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THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
for providers on specific content areas, including nutrition, child growth and development, and health and safety.105 The American
Dietetic Association recommends that child
care providers and food service personnel receive appropriate nutrition and food service
training.106 We found no recommendations
for training relating specifically to physical
activity, though children in preschools with
better-educated teachers have been found to
have significantly higher levels of MVPA.107
Recommendations for
Child Care Settings
Largely ignored in the nation’s obesity dialogue so far has been the food and physical activity environment in child care settings. But
child care represents an untapped rich source
of strategies to help children acquire positive
healthy habits to prevent obesity. The infrastructure already exists within Head Start and
CACFP child care sites to incorporate healthful eating and exercise into these programs,
thus reaching many low-income and minority
children who are at greatest risk for obesity.
But regulations and standards governing physical activity and nutrition need to be strengthened. Child care settings also offer a way to
reach parents to make healthful changes at
home to reinforce and support healthful eating and regular exercise. The box on the following page lists strategies for creating a
healthful environment in child care settings to
improve physical activity and eating behaviors
to prevent obesity in young children.
Conclusions
The early years spent in child care are crucially important to a child’s development.
High-quality child care and early education
help ensure that a child will develop skills
and enter school ready to learn.108 For a
young child, health and education are inseparable. Eating nutritious foods and engaging
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Strategies for Achieving a More Healthful Food and
Physical Activity Environment in Child Care Settings
Policy Goals
At the federal level, Congress should require all meals and snacks offered by the Child and Adult
Care Food Program to meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Regulations would apply to all
providers in participating child care centers, family child care facilities, and after-school care
programs.
States should develop nutrition and physical activity policies for licensed child care facilities that
address healthful eating, physical activity, and media use. Policies should also address nutrition
and physical activity training for staff and nutrition training for food service staff.
At the local level, licensed preschool and child care facilities should have written nutrition policies
that follow the Dietary Guidelines for Americans for meals, snacks, and beverages. They should
also have written policies to ensure adequate, developmentally appropriate physical activity and to
limit screen time.
Research Goals
Researchers should pursue four primary goals. First, they should develop, implement, and evaluate innovative intervention programs focused on promoting healthful eating and physical activity
and on preventing obesity in child care facilities, especially facilities serving low-income and minority children who are at highest risk. Second, they should conduct descriptive environmental
studies in child care centers, Head Start, and licensed day care homes to assess the food environment (the types and amounts of foods and beverages served for meals and snacks), the physical activity environment (the amount and type of physical activity), and media use. Third, they
should conduct a national study of child care programs on the dietary quality of meals and snacks
served and how they compare to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and Dietary Reference Intakes. And finally they should evaluate methods to increase parental involvement, to change
parental behavior, and to change the home environment through child care–based obesity-prevention interventions.
in physical activity on a daily basis are two essential elements for healthy well-being in the
early years. Child care settings can and
should provide an environment in which
young children are offered nutritious foods
and regular physical activity through structured and unstructured play so that they
learn these healthful lifestyle behaviors at an
early age. Child care homes and centers offer
many opportunities to form and support
healthful eating habits and physical activity
patterns in young children. Thus they can
play a critical role in laying a foundation for
healthy weight. The number of children in
the United States aged four and younger is
expected to grow by 1.2 million over the next
decade, for a 6 percent rise. The number of
working parents who depend on child care
services is also expected to grow.109 To help
stem the childhood obesity epidemic, the nation must pay more attention to the food and
physical activity offered in various child care
settings.
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Notes
1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity (Rockville, Md.: 2001); A. A. Hedley and others, “Prevalence of Overweight and Obesity among U.S. Children, Adolescents, and Adults, 1999–2002,” Journal of the American
Medical Association 291, no. 23 (2004): 2847–50.
2. National Center for Education Statistics, Child Care and Early Education Program Participation of Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers (Washington: U.S. Department of Education, 1996).
3. Robert C. Fellmeth, “The Child Care System in the United States,” in Health and Welfare for Families in
the 21st Century, edited by Helen M. Wallace, Gordon Green, and Kenneth J. Jaros (Sudbury, Mass.: Jones
& Bartlett Publishers, 2003).
4. Eugene Smolensky and Jennifer Appleton Gootman, eds., Committee on Family and Work Policies, National Research Council (U.S.), Working Families and Growing Kids: Caring for Children and Adolescents
(Washington: National Academies Press, 2003).
5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Child Health USA 2002 (Rockville, Md.: 2003).
6. Food Research and Action Center, “State of the States, 2005: A Profile of Food and Nutrition Programs
across the Nation” (www.frac.org [March 22, 2005]).
7. M. Cubed, The National Economic Impacts of the Child Care Sector, National Child Care Association, fall
2002 (www.nccanet.org/NCCA%20Impact%20Study.pdf [July 29, 2005]).
8. Children’s Foundation and National Association for Regulatory Administration, “Family Child Care Licensing Study” (http://128.174.128.220/egi-bin/IMS/Results.asp [March 22, 2005]).
9. Smolensky and Gootman, eds., Working Families and Growing Kids (see note 4).
10. National Association for the Education of Young Children, “Licensing and Public Regulation of Early
Childhood Programs: A Position Statement of the National Association for the Education of Young Children” (Washington, 1998).
11. Children’s Defense Fund, “Child Care Basics” (www.childrensdefense.org/earlychildhood/childcare/
child_care_basics_2005.pdf [May 21, 2005]).
12. J. Capizzano and G. Adams, “The Hours That Children under Five Spend in Child Care: Variation across
States,” no. B-8 (Washington: Urban Institute, 2000).
13. Smolensky and Gootman, eds., Working Families and Growing Kids (see note 4).
14. National Center for Education Statistics, National Household Education Survey 2001 (Washington: U.S.
Department of Education, 2002).
15. Cubed, The National Economic Impacts of the Child Care Sector (see note 7).
16. Ibid.
17. Smolensky and Gootman, eds., Working Families and Growing Kids (see note 4).
18. Ibid.
162
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19. Jeffrey Koplan, Catharyn T. Liverman, and Vivica I. Kraak, Preventing Childhood Obesity: Health in the
Balance (Washington: National Academies Press, 2005).
20. National Academy of Sciences, Food and Nutrition Information Center, National Research Council, Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) and Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) (www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/etext/
000105.html [August 15, 2005]).
21. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture, Dietary Guidelines
for Americans, 2005, 6th ed. (Government Printing Office, 2005).
22. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Healthy People 2010: Understanding and Improving
Health, 2nd ed. (GPO, 2000).
23. S. Kranz, A. M. Siega-Riz, and A. H. Herring, “Changes in Diet Quality of American Preschoolers between
1977 and 1998,” American Journal of Public Health 94, no. 9 (2004): 1525–30.
24. B. Devaney and others, “Nutrient Intakes of Infants and Toddlers,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 104, no. 1, suppl. 1 (2004): S14–S21.
25. M. K. Fox and others, “Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study: What Foods Are Infants and Toddlers Eating?” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 104, no. 1, suppl. 1 (2004): S22–S30.
26. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, “Child and Adult Care Food Program”
(www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/care/cacfp/cacfphome.htm [March 5, 2005]).
27. Food Research and Action Center, “State of the States, 2005” (see note 6).
28. F. Glanz, “Child and Adult Care Food Program, 2004,” in Effects of Food Assistance and Nutrition Programs on Nutrition and Health, vol. 3: Literature Review, edited by M. K. Fox, W. Hamilton, and B. H.
Lin. Food Assistance and Nutrition Research Report no. 19-3 (Washington: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, 2004).
29. For example, for July 2003–04, subsidies for children with family incomes below 130 percent of the poverty
line were 60 cents for each snack, $1.20 for each breakfast, and $2.19 for each lunch or supper. For children with family incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty line, subsidies were 30 cents
for snacks, 90 cents for breakfast, and $1.79 for lunch or supper; for children with family incomes above
185 percent of the poverty line, subsidies were 5 cents for snacks, 22 cents for breakfast, and 21 cents for
lunch or supper. These amounts are indexed yearly for inflation. Committee on Ways and Means, U.S.
House of Representatives, 2004 Green Book (GPO, 2004), section 15, pages 15–117.
30. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, “Child and Adult Care Food Program” (see
note 26).
31. Glanz, “Child and Adult Care Food Program, 2004” (see note 28).
32. Ibid.
33. Food Research and Action Center, “State of the States, 2005” (see note 6).
34. Committee on Ways and Means, 2004 Green Book, pages 15–116 (see note 29).
35. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, “Child and Adult Care Food Program” (see
note 26).
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36. Glanz, “Child and Adult Care Food Program, 2004” (see note 28).
37. Lynn Parker, “The Federal Nutrition Programs: A Safety Net for Very Young Children,” Zero to Three 21,
no. 1 (2000): 29–36.
38. Ibid.
39. Glanz, “Child and Adult Care Food Program, 2004” (see note 28).
40. American Dietetic Association, “Position of the American Dietetic Association: Nutrition Standards for
Child-Care Programs,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 99, no. 8 (1999): 981–88; American
Dietetic Association, “Position of the American Dietetic Association: Benchmarks for Nutrition Programs
in Child Care Settings,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 105, no. 6 (2005): 979–86; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Head Start Bureau,
Head Start Program Performance Standards and Other Regulations (Washington, 2005).
41. M. K. Fox and others, Early Childhood and Child Care Study: Nutritional Assessment of the CACFP, vol.
2: Final Report (Washington: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Consumer Service, 1997).
42. Ibid.
43. M. E. Briley, C. Roberts-Gray, and S. Rowe, “What Can Children Learn from the Menu at the Child Care
Center?” Journal of Community Health 18, no. 6 (1993): 363–77; M. E. Briley, C. Roberts-Gray, and D.
Simpson, “Identification of Factors That Influence the Menu at Child Care Centers: A Grounded Theory
Approach,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 94, no. 3 (1994): 276–81; C. B. Oakley and others,
“Evaluation of Menus Planned in Mississippi Child-Care Centers Participating in the Child and Adult Care
Food Program,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 95, no. 7 (1995): 765–68.
44. Briley, Roberts-Gray, and Rowe, “What Can Children Learn” (see note 43).
45. Briley, Roberts-Gray, and Simpson, “Identification of Factors” (see note 43).
46. A. Padget and M. E. Briley, “Dietary Intakes at Child-Care Centers in Central Texas Fail to Meet Food
Guide Pyramid Recommendations,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 105, no. 5 (2005): 790–93.
47. Fox and others, Early Childhood and Child Care Study (see note 41).
48. Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Agriculture, Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005 (see note 21); Department of Health and Human Services, Healthy People 2010 (see note 22).
49. Russell R. Pate and others, “Physical Activity among Children Attending Preschools,” Pediatrics 114, no. 5
(2004): 1258–63.
50. Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Agriculture, Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005 (see note 21).
51. National Association for Sport and Physical Education, Active Start: A Statement of Physical Activity
Guidelines for Children Birth to Five Years (Reston, Va.: National Association for Sport and Physical Education, 2002).
52. M. Dowda and others, “Influences of Preschool Policies and Practices on Children’s Physical Activity,”
Journal of Community Health 29, no. 3 (2004): 183–96.
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53. National Association for Sport and Physical Education, Active Start (see note 51); American Academy of
Pediatrics, Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness and Committee on School Health, “Organized
Sports for Children and Preadolescents,” Pediatrics 107 (2001): 1459–62.
54. Pate and others, “Physical Activity among Children” (see note 49).
55. K. Finn, N. Johannsen, and B. Specker, “Factors Associated with Physical Activity in Preschool Children,”
Journal of Pediatrics 140, no. 1 (2002): 81–85.
56. Pate and others, “Physical Activity among Children” (see note 49).
57. Dowda and others, “Influences of Preschool Policies” (see note 52); Finn, Johannsen, and Specker, “Factors Associated with Physical Activity” (see note 55).
58. S. G. Trost and others, “Physical Activity in Overweight and Nonoverweight Preschool Children,” International Journal of Obesity & Related Metabolic Disorders 27, no. 7 (2003): 834–39.
59. Dowda and others, “Influences of Preschool Policies” (see note 52).
60. National Association for Sport and Physical Education, Active Start (see note 51).
61. Smolensky and Gootman, eds., Working Families and Growing Kids (see note 4).
62. American Academy of Pediatrics, “Children, Adolescents, and Television,” Pediatrics 107, no. 2 (2001):
423–26.
63. Dowda and others, “Influences of Preschool Policies” (see note 52); Pate and others, “Physical Activity
among Children” (see note 49); Finn, Johannsen, and Specker, “Factors Associated with Physical Activity”
(see note 55).
64. Dowda and others, “Influences of Preschool Policies” (see note 52); Pate and others, “Physical Activity
among Children” (see note 49).
65. M. L. Fitzgibbon and others, “Two-Year Follow-up Results for Hip-Hop to Health Jr.: A Randomized Controlled Trial for Overweight Prevention in Preschool Minority Children,” Journal of Pediatrics 146, no. 5
(2005): 618–25; M. L. Fitzgibbon and others, “A Community-Based Obesity Prevention Program for Minority Children: Rationale and Study Design for Hip-Hop to Health Jr.,” Preventive Medicine 34, no. 2
(2002): 289–97.
66. Fitzgibbon and others, “Two-Year Follow-up Results” (see note 65). The difference at the one-year followup was 0.06 vs. 0.59 kg/m2 ; the difference at the two-year follow-up was 0.54 vs. 1.08 kg/m2.
67. Christine L. Williams and others, “Cardiovascular Risk Reduction in Preschool Children: The �Healthy
Start’ Project,” Journal of the American College of Nutrition 23, no. 2 (2004): 117–23; C. L. Williams and
others, “�Healthy-Start’: Outcome of an Intervention to Promote a Heart Healthy Diet in Preschool Children,” Journal of the American College of Nutrition 21, no. 1 (2002): 62–71.
68. T. N. Robinson, “Reducing Children’s Television Viewing to Prevent Obesity: A Randomized Controlled
Trial,” Journal of the American Medical Association 282, no. 16 (1999): 1561–67; S. L. Gortmaker and others, “Reducing Obesity via a School-Based Interdisciplinary Intervention among Youth: Planet Health,”
Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 153, no. 4 (1999): 409–18.
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69. B. A. Dennison and others, “An Intervention to Reduce Television Viewing by Preschool Children,”
Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 158, no. 2 (2004): 170–76.
70. Robinson, “Reducing Children’s Television Viewing” (see note 68).
71. R. P. Troiano and others, “Energy and Fat Intakes of Children and Adolescents in the United States: Data
from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 72,
no. 5, suppl. (2000): S1343–S53.
72. J. A. Welsh and others, “Overweight among Low-Income Preschool Children Associated with the Consumption of Sweet Drinks: Missouri, 1999–2002,” Pediatrics 115, no. 2 (2005): e223–29.
73. B. A. Dennison, H. L. Rockwell, and S. L. Baker, “Excess Fruit Juice Consumption by Preschool-Aged
Children Is Associated with Short Stature and Obesity,” Pediatrics 99, no. 1 (1997): 15–22. Erratum appears in Pediatrics 100, no. 4 (1997): 733.
74. American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Nutrition, “The Use and Misuse of Fruit Juice in Pediatrics,” Pediatrics 107, no. 5 (2001): 1210–13.
75. Kranz, Siega-Riz, and Herring, “Changes in Diet Quality” (see note 23).
76. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Head Start
Bureau, “About Head Start” (www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/hsb/about [March 22, 2005]).
77. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Head Start Bureau, “Head Start Fact Sheets” (www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/hsb/research/factsheets.htm [March 22, 2005]).
78. Smolensky and Gootman, eds., Working Families and Growing Kids (see note 4).
79. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Head Start
Bureau, Head Start Program Performance Standards and Other Regulations (Washington, 2005).
80. Ibid.
81. Ibid.
82. Ibid.
83. Wallace, Green, and Jaros, eds., Health and Welfare for Families in the 21st Century (see note 3).
84. Fitzgibbon and others, “Two-Year Follow-up Results” (see note 65).
85. U.S. General Accounting Office, Child Care: State Efforts to Enforce Safety and Health Requirements,
GAO/HEHS-00-28 (Washington, January 2000).
86. Sandra L. Hofferth, “Child Care in the United States Today,” Future of Children 6, no. 2 (1996): 41–61.
87. H. Blank, “Challenges of Child Care,” in About Children: An Authoritative Resource on the State of Childhood Today, edited by A. G. Cosby and others (Elk Grove Village, Ill.: American Academy of Pediatrics,
2005).
88. U.S. General Accounting Office, Child Care (see note 85); Hofferth, “Child Care in the United States
Today” (see note 86).
166
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89. American Dietetic Association, “Position of the American Dietetic Association: Nutrition Standards” (see
note 40); American Dietetic Association, “Position of the American Dietetic Association: Benchmarks for
Nutrition Programs” (see note 40); American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association,
and National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care, Caring for Our Children: National
Health and Safety Performance Standards—Guidelines for Out-of-Home Child Care, 2nd ed. (Elk Grove
Village, Ill.: 2002).
90. U.S. General Accounting Office, Child Care (see note 85).
91. Children’s Defense Fund, “Child Care Basics” (see note 11).
92. U.S. General Accounting Office, Child Care (see note 85); American Academy of Pediatrics, American
Public Health Association, and National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care, Caring for
Our Children (see note 89).
93. American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, and National Resource Center for
Health and Safety in Child Care, Caring for Our Children (see note 89), p. 383.
94. National Association for the Education of Young Children, “Licensing and Public Regulation” (see note
10), p. 4.
95. U.S. General Accounting Office, Child Care (see note 85).
96. National Association for the Education of Young Children, “Licensing and Public Regulation” (see note 10).
97. National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care, U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services, Health Resources and Services Administration, “Individual States’ Child Care Licensure Regulations” (http://nrc.uchs.edu/STATES/states.htm [March 22, 2005]).
98. Ibid.
99. Carnegie Corporation of New York, Starting Points: Meeting the Needs of Our Youngest Children (New
York, August 1994).
100. Blank, “Challenges of Child Care” (see note 87).
101. Children’s Defense Fund, “Child Care Basics” (see note 11).
102. Ibid.; Blank, “Challenges of Child Care” (see note 87).
103. Blank, “Challenges of Child Care (see note 87).
104. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, November 2003 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates (Washington, 2003) (www.bls.gov/news.release/ocwage.t01.htm [August 2,
2005]); C. Howes, M. Whitebook, and D. Phillips, Worthy Work, Unlivable Wages: The National Child
Care Staffing Study, 1988–1997 (Washington: Center for the Child Care Workforce, 1998); S. Helburn
and others, Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes Study (Denver, Colo.: University of Colorado, 1995).
105. American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, and National Resource Center for
Health and Safety in Child Care, Caring for Our Children (see note 89); National Association for the Education of Young Children, Division of Early Childhood Council for Exceptional Children, National Board
for Professional Teaching Standards, Guidelines for Preparation of Early Childhood Professionals (Washington, 1996).
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106. American Dietetic Association, “Position of the American Dietetic Association: Nutrition Standards” (see
note 40); American Dietetic Association, “Position of the American Dietetic Association: Benchmarks for
Nutrition Programs” (see note 40).
107. Dowda and others, “Influences of Preschool Policies” (see note 52).
108. Blank, “Challenges of Child Care” (see note 87).
109. Cubed, The National Economic Impacts (see note 7).
168
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The Role of Parents in Preventing
Childhood Obesity
Ana C. Lindsay, Katarina M. Sussner, Juhee Kim,
and Steven Gortmaker
Summary
As researchers continue to analyze the role of parenting both in the development of childhood
overweight and in obesity prevention, studies of child nutrition and growth are detailing the
ways in which parents affect their children’s development of food- and activity-related behaviors. Ana Lindsay, Katarina Sussner, Juhee Kim, and Steven Gortmaker argue that interventions aimed at preventing childhood overweight and obesity should involve parents as important forces for change in their children’s behaviors.
The authors begin by reviewing evidence on how parents can help their children develop and
maintain healthful eating and physical activity habits, thereby ultimately helping prevent childhood overweight and obesity. They show how important it is for parents to understand how their
roles in preventing obesity change as their children move through critical developmental periods, from before birth and through adolescence. They point out that researchers, policymakers,
and practitioners should also make use of such information to develop more effective interventions and educational programs that address childhood obesity right where it starts—at home.
The authors review research evaluating school-based obesity-prevention interventions that include components targeted at parents. Although much research has been done on how parents
shape their children’s eating and physical activity habits, surprisingly few high-quality data exist
on the effectiveness of such programs. The authors call for more programs and cost-effectiveness studies aimed at improving parents’ ability to shape healthful eating and physical activity
behaviors in their children.
The authors conclude that preventing and controlling childhood obesity will require multifaceted
and community-wide programs and policies, with parents having a critical role to play. Successful
intervention efforts, they argue, must involve and work directly with parents from the earliest
stages of child development to support healthful practices both in and outside of the home.
www.futureofchildren.org
Ana C. Lindsay is a research scientist in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. Katarina M. Sussner is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Biological Anthropology at the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Juhee Kim is a research
fellow in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. Steven Gortmaker is a professor of the practice of health sociology in the Department of Society, Human Development, and Health at the Harvard School of Public Health.
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P
arents are key to developing a
home environment that fosters
healthful eating and physical activity among children and adolescents. Parents shape their children’s dietary practices, physical activity,
sedentary behaviors, and ultimately their
weight status in many ways. Parents’ knowledge of nutrition; their influence over food
selection, meal structure, and home eating
patterns; their modeling of healthful eating
practices; their levels of physical activity; and
their modeling of sedentary habits including
television viewing are all influential in their
children’s development of lifelong habits that
contribute to normal weight or to overweight
and obesity.1
Because the parents’ roles at home in promoting healthful eating practices and levels
of physical activity—and thus in preventing
obesity—are so critical, they should also be
central to collective efforts to combat the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic. L. Epstein
offers three reasons for involving parents in
obesity-prevention interventions. First, obesity runs in families, and it may be unrealistic
to intervene with one member of a family
while other family members are modeling
and supporting behaviors that run counter to
the intervention’s goals. Second, parents
serve as models and reinforce and support
the acquisition and maintenance of eating
and exercise behaviors. Finally, to produce
maximal behavior change in children, it may
be necessary to teach parents to use specific
behavior-change strategies such as positive
reinforcement.2 Several successful schoolbased health-promotion interventions, such
as Planet Health and Eat Well and Keep
Moving, already include a component targeted at improving parenting behaviors, as
does the well-established Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, In170
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
fants, and Children (WIC) public health and
educational program.3 Because research
shows how the parents’ roles in influencing
the development of overweight and obesity
differ at different stages of their children’s
development, these parenting components
will be most effective if they are targeted at
children in particular age groups.
Parental Roles during
a Child’s Development
Parenting influences the development of
overweight and obesity in various ways at different stages of a child’s development. The
following discussion is structured around
three time periods in children’s lives: gestation and early infancy; early childhood, when
children are toddlers or preschoolers; and
middle childhood and adolescence, when
children are attending school.4
Gestation and Infancy
Before an infant is even born, aspects of his
mother’s pregnancy can put him at risk of
overweight in childhood and later in life.5 An
unfavorable intrauterine environment, for
example, can increase a fetus’s future risk of
developing adult metabolic abnormalities,
including obesity, hypertension, and noninsulin-dependent diabetes mellitus.6 The
children of mothers who suffer from diabetes
mellitus, gestational diabetes, and undernutrition and overnutrition during pregnancy
are at particular risk for obesity, with the
greatest risk factor being gestational diabetes.7 A key strategy for obesity prevention
at this stage of a child’s development, therefore, is to focus on screening for and preventing diabetes during pregnancy.
Parents also have an important role to play
during infancy, when a child is establishing
the foundation for dietary habits and nutritional adequacy over a lifetime.8 Although
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debate over whether breast-feeding can help
prevent obesity later in life continues, many
researchers believe that breast-feeding infants does have a protective effect against
obesity. Several studies, for example, have
documented lower rates of overweight
among children who were breast-fed for
longer durations.9 Their findings, however,
were limited to non-Hispanic whites and did
not apply to other racial or ethnic groups.10
One explanation for the protective effect of
breast-feeding is that it helps infants better
regulate their food intake than does bottlefeeding. Encouraging an infant to empty a
bottle and using formulas more concentrated
in energy and nutrients than breast milk may
make it more difficult for the baby to attend
to his or her own normal feelings of satiety. If
such experiences occur early in infancy and
continue, an infant may not develop reliable
control over food intake. None of the recent
studies of breast-feeding, however, rules out
the possibility that the protective effect of
breast-feeding on obesity later in life may be
due to confounding factors such as parental
weight status or social and economic status.11
Toddlers and Preschool Children
As toddlers and preschoolers develop habits
related to eating and physical activity, parents
can shape their early environments in ways
that encourage them to be more healthful.12
Parents and Healthful Food Behaviors
Children come equipped with a biological set
of taste predispositions: they like sweet and
salty tastes and energy-dense foods, and they
dislike bitter and sour tastes.13 But they develop most of their food habits through exposure and repeated experience. Research suggests that individual differences in the
physiologic regulation of energy intake appear as early as the preschool years and that
parents have enormous influence on these
differences.14 Current data, although limited,
suggest that the way parents feed their children contributes to individual differences in
how well children can regulate their food intake and perhaps to the origins of energy imbalance.15 Especially in the early years of a
child’s life, parents have a direct role in providing experiences that encourage the child’s
control of food intake. Around preschool age,
when children particularly dislike new foods,
it is important for parents to model healthful
eating habits and to offer a variety of healthful foods to their children. When parents
provide early exposure to nutritious foods,
even fruits and vegetables, children like and
eat more of such foods.16 But parents should
observe a clearly defined role in offering the
foods to their children. As described by W.
Dietz and L. Stern, parents “are responsible
for offering a healthful variety of foods,”
while children themselves “are responsible
for deciding what and how much they want to
eat from what they are offered.”17
Although children are predisposed to respond to the energy content of foods in controlling their intake, they are also responsive
to their parents’ control attempts. Research
has shown that these attempts can refocus
the child away from responsiveness to internal cues of hunger and satiety and toward
such external factors as the presence of palatable foods.18 Parents who control or restrict
what their young children eat may believe
they are doing what is best for their child, but
recent research challenges this assumption.
Imposing stringent controls can increase
preferences for high-fat, energy-dense foods,
perhaps causing children’s normal internal
cues to self-regulate hunger and satiety to become unbalanced.19
Parents should also be aware of the social
contexts in which foods are consumed. StudV O L . 1 6 / N O. 1 / S P R I N G 2 0 0 6
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ies have found that children develop preferences for foods offered in positive contexts
and, conversely, are more likely to dislike
foods offered in negative contexts.20 Offering
healthful foods in positive contexts will encourage youngsters to enjoy and eat such
foods.
Another important influence on the types of
food young children consume is a household’s
food choices. At an early age children will eat
Parents who control or
restrict what their young
children eat may believe they
are doing what is best for
their child, but recent
research challenges this
assumption.
what their parents, especially their mothers,
eat.21 And if parents overeat, their children
may too. Thus the parents’ own eating behaviors may contribute to the development of
overweight in their children.22 The types of
food available and accessible in the home are
also linked with the weight status of preschool children. Research suggests, for example, that increased consumption of sugarsweetened drinks, like fruit juice, might raise
the risk of overweight among preschool children.23 One study found that children aged
two to five years who drank more than twelve
ounces of fruit juice a day were more likely to
be overweight than those who drank less.24
More recently, a study of two- to three-yearold children found that for those who are at
risk for overweight, consuming sweet drinks
as infrequently as once or twice daily in172
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
creased their odds of becoming overweight.25
These findings are consistent with those of
long-term studies and interventions focused
on sugar-sweetened beverages among schoolaged children, although some smaller longterm studies in children found no significant
link between fruit juice intake and overweight.26
Parents and Physical Activity during
Early Childhood
Physical activity is a key component of energy
balance, and keeping small children active is
an essential part of preventing child overweight.27 Research has found that physical
activity is associated with lower risks of accelerated weight gain and excess adiposity
among preschool-aged children.28 An eightyear study of three- to five-year-old children
found that the most active children had significantly lower body mass index (BMI) than
their less active counterparts.29 A study of
three- to five-year-old children attending
preschool found that overweight boys were
significantly less active than normal-weight
boys during the preschool day.30
Few studies have examined the relationship
between the activity levels of parents and
their young children. The Framingham Children’s Study, however, monitored physical activity with a mechanical device—the Caltrac
accelerometer—in four- to seven-year-old
children and their parents and found that the
children of active mothers were twice as
likely to be active as children of inactive
mothers. When both parents were active,
these children were 5.8 times more likely to
be active than the children of two sedentary
parents.31
A few studies of preschool children have
found that the more time children spend outdoors, the higher their activity levels.32 These
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findings suggest that parents can and should
encourage outdoor play. Questions of safety
and accessibility, however, may make it more
difficult for some parents and children to
spend time outdoors. Minority and lowerincome parents, for example, are more likely
to live in communities with fewer parks,
sports facilities, bike paths, and other places
for children to be active and safe.33
Although most research on television viewing’s influence on child obesity has been conducted among older children and adolescents,
some studies have focused on preschool-aged
children. A study of five- and six-year-old Hispanic (predominantly Mexican American)
children in Chicago found a link between TV
viewing and overweight.34 R. H. DuRant and
several colleagues directly observed threeand four-year-old children in their homes and
found that children who watched TV more
hours a day and children who watched for
longer periods of time at one sitting were less
likely to engage in physical activity.35 Another
study of 2,761 adults with children aged one
to five years from forty-nine New York State
WIC agencies found that viewing TV and
videos and having a TV in the bedroom were
both linked with the prevalence of child overweight.36 These studies indicate that parents
should limit preschoolers’ TV and video viewing and keep televisions out of their
bedrooms.
School-Aged Children and Youth
National data indicate that 16 percent of children aged six to nineteen years are overweight.37 As children grow older and as they
focus less on family and more on school,
peers, and different media, parental influence wanes. As adolescents, children spend
increasingly more time away from home, become more exposed to environments that encourage obesity, and have greater choices in
their own diet and physical activities. When
children make critical decisions about nutrition and physical activity on their own, parents’ roles become even more challenging.
Nevertheless, parents and family members
can still provide a healthful home nutrition
and physical activity environment.
Parents and Healthful Eating
in School-Aged Children
Parents can encourage healthful eating habits
at home by increasing the number of family
meals eaten together, making healthful foods
available, and reducing the availability of
sugar-sweetened beverages and sodas.
Studies show that eating dinner together as a
family promotes healthful eating among children and adolescents by increasing their consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole
grains and reducing their consumption of fats
and soft drinks.38 These same studies, however, show that families eat dinner together
less often as children grow older. One study
found that nine-year-olds ate dinner with
their family roughly half the time, while fourteen-year-olds ate dinner with their families
only a third of the time.39 It is crucial, therefore, that parents maintain family eating
practices throughout adolescence.
As with preschool-aged children, the availability of foods at home is a major influence
on older children’s diets. Studies have found
that making fruits and vegetables available at
home increases children’s consumption of
these foods.40 And parents must not only provide healthful foods at home, but also eat
these foods themselves.
Between 1965 and 1996, adolescents’ soft
drink consumption increased 150 percent
while their consumption of fruit drinks increased 89 percent. As with young children,
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exposing them to commercials for unhealthful foods.48 Experimental results suggest
both factors are at work.49 According to a recent nationally representative survey, children from third through twelfth grade spend
an estimated eight hours a day of media time
—using computers, listening to music,
watching movies, playing computer and
video games, and watching TV. About 26 percent of children are “media multitaskers”
who go online while they watch TV, resulting
in more exposure to the media environment
simultaneously.50
several studies indicate that sugar-sweetened
beverages may play an important role in the
childhood obesity epidemic.41 A long-term
study of children that began when they were
eleven and twelve years old found that their
odds of becoming overweight increased 60
percent for each additional serving of sugarsweetened drinks consumed daily.42 A second
long-term study, this one beginning when
children were nine to fourteen years old,
linked consumption of sugar-added beverages with increased weight gains.43 In a randomized controlled trial in England, reducing consumption of carbonated beverages
lowered the prevalence of overweight among
seven- to eleven-year-olds.44 Such findings
show how important it is for parents to limit
their children’s consumption of these beverages at home. Now that many schools are
making a commitment to soda-free hallways
and cafeterias, parents can follow their lead
and keep their homes free of sugar-sweetened beverages as well.
Studies of the contents of television advertisements document that children are exposed to a vast number of TV ads for sodas,
cereal, candy, and fast food.51 And other research suggests that exposure to food commercials influences children’s preferences
and food requests and can contribute to confusion among children about the relative
health benefits of foods.
Parents and Older Children’s
Activity Levels
Children and adolescents spend more time
watching television than they do in almost
any other activity. By the time they reach
school-age, about half of U.S. children watch
television more than two hours a day, and 17
percent of African American children watch
more than five hours a day.45 Many studies
link TV viewing with overweight.46 Randomized controlled trials indicate that watching
fewer hours of TV can reduce children’s body
mass index and obesity risk.47 TV viewing,
therefore, may be one important cause of
childhood obesity that parents can modify at
home.
Recent data indicate that 68 percent of children have a TV in their bedroom, and half
have a video game player and a VCR or DVD
player as well. Increasing numbers of children also have cable or satellite TV, computer, and Internet access in their bedrooms.
Despite such widespread access, more than
half of children report that they have no
parental rules on TV watching hours. Among
those reporting such rules, only 20 percent
said parents enforce them “most” of the
time.52 Limiting physical access to TV may
help children reduce their TV viewing.53
Children with a TV in their room spend an
estimated 1.5 hours more a day watching TV
than do those without a set in their room.54
TV viewing may increase overweight both by
reducing children’s physical activity and by
encouraging poor eating habits in children by
Parents can also help by limiting their own
TV watching and sedentary behavior. Studies
show that when parents are sedentary, their
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THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
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A Word of Caution to Parents about Encouraging Child Dieting
Even though childhood obesity experts discourage dieting, parents who feel the need to control a
child’s weight commonly encourage dieting. Studies on dieting behaviors consistently report that
their parents’ inducement to diet is the most significant factor in causing children to begin dieting.
Their parents’ direct verbal encouragement is more influential than the parents’ own dieting
behaviors.
Many adolescents whose parents urged them to diet report engaging in unhealthful dieting behaviors. Focusing on dieting for weight control may overemphasize the thinness ideal and over time
may even lead to an increased risk for obesity. It is important for parents of overweight children to
learn about the dangers of dieting and to talk with their child’s doctor or health care provider
about ways to promote healthful habits.
Sources: L. L. Birch and J. O. Fisher, “Development of Eating Behaviors among Children and Adolescents,” Pediatrics 101, no. 3, pt. 2
(1998): 539–49; K. G. Strong and G. F. Huon, “An Evaluation of a Structural Model for Studies of the Initiation of Dieting among Adolescent Girls,” Journal of Psychosomatic Research 44, no. 3–4 (1998): 315–26; R. Dixon, V. Adair, and S. O’Connor, “Parental Influences on
the Dieting Beliefs and Behaviors of Adolescent Females in New Zealand,” Journal of Adolescent Health 19, no. 4 (1996): 303–07; G. B.
Schreiber and others, “Weight Modification Efforts Reported by Black and White Preadolescent Girls: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Growth and Health Study,” Pediatrics 98, no. 1 (1996): 63–70; S. Saarilehto and others, “Connections between Parental Eating Attitudes and Children’s Meagre Eating: Questionnaire Findings,” Acta Paediatrica 90 (2001): 333–38; L. Smolak, M. P. Levine, and F. Schermer, “Parental Input and Weight Concerns among Elementary School Children,” International Journal of Eating Disorders 25, no. 3 (1999):
263–71; J. A. Fulkerson and others, “Weight-Related Attitudes and Behaviors of Adolescent Boys and Girls Who Are Encouraged to Diet by
Their Mothers,” International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders 26, no. 12 (2002): 1579–87.
children are more likely to be sedentary as
well.55 Adolescents whose parents watch TV
more than two hours a day are more than
twice as likely to be physically inactive as
those children whose parents watch less.56
During the transition from childhood to adolescence, children’s physical activity drops off
dramatically.57 Although current guidelines
recommend at least sixty minutes of physical
activity for older children on most, preferably
all, days of the week, only 63 percent of adolescents reported meeting those guidelines in
1999.58 Parents can encourage older children
to be more active. Studies suggest that participating in sports teams or exercise programs
can help adolescents reduce their body mass
index.59
Some studies have found that children are
more likely to be active if their parents are active, while others do not find this relationship
and rather emphasize the importance of
parental support.60 Many studies show that
parents can promote children’s physical activity by providing support and encouragement.61 Further, those parents who realize
the importance of physical activity may offer
even greater support.62 That support can take
many forms: arranging access to after-school
or community sports and activity programs,
watching children’s activities, or simply playing with their children.63 Parents’ views about
their children’s competence and task orientation may also affect their physical activity.64
Concerns about traffic, drug dealers, crime,
and violence may cause parents to limit places
where their child can play, thereby reducing
their opportunities for activity.65
Family-Based Obesity-Prevention
Programs
Although a great deal of research has been
done on how parents shape their children’s
eating and physical activity habits, surprisingly
few high-quality data exist on the effectiveness
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of obesity-prevention programs for children
that center on parental involvement. One reason for the paucity of data is that, despite
some studies that indicate promising results,
few programs are solely parent-based. Most
efforts to involve parents are components of
more comprehensive interventions. For example, many school-based programs aimed at
preventing childhood obesity are targeted at
children within school settings but include
parental components that help parents set lim-
Creating more programs to
improve parenting behaviors
relevant to childhood
overweight is a highly
promising strategy.
its on TV viewing and provide electronic
“lock-out” devices.66 Likewise, health care–
based interventions may add a parenting
focus. Meanwhile, a WIC-sponsored nutrition
intervention will take place within the context
of WIC, but it might add a parental component aimed at reducing TV time.67
As yet little to no information is available on
the cost-effectiveness of obesity-prevention
interventions that have a parenting component. One middle-school program called
Planet Health was found to be highly costeffective—in fact, more cost-effective even
than commonly accepted preventive interventions such as screening and treatment for
hypertension.68 Precisely what influence the
program’s parental component specifically
generated, however, is unclear. Nevertheless,
creating more programs to improve parenting behaviors relevant to childhood overweight is a highly promising strategy. Such
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THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
programs would be most effective if they
were targeted at children of various ages
based on research that shows how parents
can best help children at different developmental stages. Researchers should carefully
evaluate the programs’ effectiveness.
Solely Parent-Based Interventions
One solely parent-based intervention consisted of twenty-eight families of seven- to
twelve-year-old African American children
who received primary care at an urban community clinic serving a low-income population. Families were randomly selected to receive counseling alone or counseling plus a
behavioral intervention that included an electronic television time manager. Both groups
reported similar decreases in their children’s
use of television, videotapes, and video
games. The behavioral intervention group reported significantly greater increases in organized physical activity and somewhat
greater increases in playing outside. Changes
in overall household television use and in
meals eaten while watching television also appeared to favor the behavioral intervention,
with small to medium effect sizes, but these
differences were not statistically significant.69
Another recent solely family-based intervention tested two versions of a culturally relevant program to prevent excess weight gain in
pre-adolescent African American girls. The
girls, aged eight to ten years, were divided
into two groups, both of which participated in
highly interactive weekly group sessions. In
one group, the sessions targeted the girls; in
the other, the sessions were geared toward
their parents or caregivers. Girls in both
groups demonstrated a trend toward reduced
body mass index and waist circumference. In
addition, girls in both groups reduced their
consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages,
increased their level of moderate to vigorous
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activity, and increased their daily serving of
water.70
Comprehensive Interventions with a
Parenting Component
Most interventions aimed at preventing overweight and obesity have been school-based,
and all have improved health knowledge and
health-related behaviors to some extent.71
Some of the most successful school-based interventions, however, have included a parenting component. These interventions have resulted in dramatic changes in health
behaviors associated with child obesity and
overweight as well as in changes in body mass
index or obesity.
School-based interventions at the preschool
level are scarce, but one study’s findings provide strong support for establishing such programs. The Hip-Hop to Health Jr. program
targeted three- to five-year-old minority children enrolled in Head Start programs in
Chicago, with the aim of reducing the tendency toward overweight and obesity in
African American and Latino preschool children. The intervention presented a developmentally, culturally, and linguistically appropriate dietary and physical activity
curriculum for preschoolers, and a parent
component addressed the families’ dietary
and physical activity patterns. Each week of
the intervention covered a particular topic,
such as the importance of “Go and Grow”
foods, eating fruit, and reducing TV viewing.
Parents received weekly newsletters with information that mirrored the children’s curriculum on healthful eating and exercise as
well as a five- to fifteen-minute homework
assignment that reinforced concepts presented in the weekly newsletters. During the
fourteen-week intervention, children in a
control group attended a twenty-minute class
once a week in which they learned about var-
ious general health concepts, such as dental
health, immunization, seat belt safety, and
911 procedures. Their parents’ weekly
newsletters mirrored these sessions. A recent
two-year follow-up study found that the intervention group’s children had significantly
smaller increases in body mass index than did
those in the control group.72
Another recent study assessed the impact of
the school-based Child and Adolescent Trial
for Cardiovascular Health (CATCH) intervention among primarily Hispanic, lowincome elementary school children. The intervention tested the effectiveness of changes
in school food service, physical education,
classroom curricula, and family activities.
The family component consisted primarily of
skill-building activity packets that students
took home to complete with their parents.
Third and fourth graders and their families
were also invited to participate in Family Fun
Nights at the school. The family component
supplemented the classroom curriculum,
which focused on improving the children’s dietary and physical activity knowledge, attitudes, and self-reported behaviors, and reinforced the concepts, activities, and skills of
the curriculum. Among both boys and girls,
the intervention reduced overweight or the
risk of overweight.73
Another successful elementary school–based
health behavior intervention on diet and
physical activity was the Eat Well and Keep
Moving program. Classroom teachers in
math, science, language arts, and social studies classes taught the quasi-experimental,
two-year field trial among children in grades
four and five, with six intervention and eight
matched control schools. The intervention
provided links to school food services and
families and provided training and wellness
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bers. Its aim was to decrease the consumption of foods high in total and saturated fat, to
increase fruit and vegetable intake, to reduce
television viewing, and to increase physical
activity. Compared with students in the control schools, students in the intervention
schools reduced their share of total energy
from fat and saturated fat. They also increased their fruit and vegetable intake, vita-
A systematic review of
research on family
involvement in weight control
recently found that relatively
few intervention studies exist,
but those few suggest that
parental involvement helps
children lose weight.
min C intake, and fiber consumption. They
reduced their television viewing marginally.74
Recently, a pilot study divided children in
four elementary schools into an intervention
group and a control group and evaluated how
a school-based health report card affected
family awareness of and concerns about child
weight status, plans for weight control, and
preventive behaviors. Parents of overweight
children (including those at risk of overweight) in the intervention group had greater
awareness of their children’s weight status
and initiated more activities to control weight
than did the parents of children in the control group.75
Planet Health was a two-year, school-based
health behavior intervention targeting mid178
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
dle school–aged boys and girls in sixth
through eighth grades. Students participated
in a school-based interdisciplinary program
that used existing classroom teachers and
took place in four major subjects and physical education classes. Sessions focused on
decreasing both television viewing and the
consumption of high-fat foods and on increasing both fruit and vegetable intake and
physical activity, with no explicit discussion
of obesity. Compared with girls in the control
group, girls in the intervention group reduced their prevalence of obesity; no differences were found among boys. The intervention reduced television hours among both
girls and boys, increased fruit and vegetable
consumption among both girls and boys, and
reduced total energy intake among girls in
the intervention group compared with girls
in the control group. Among girls, obesity
prevalence was reduced for each hour that
television viewing was reduced. Although not
primarily a parent-focused program, Planet
Health had several family components, including an activity called “Power Down,”
where the household together engaged in a
TV charting exercise to reduce TV time.76
Further analysis of Planet Health found a reduced risk of disordered, or unhealthy,
weight control behaviors in girls. An economic analysis found the program substantially cost-effective.77
Obesity-related interventions have also focused on limiting television viewing.78 A recent randomized control trial called “SwitchPlay” aimed to replace TV viewing time with
more physical activities. More than half the
children reported reducing their TV viewing
while less than half increased physical activity. Most of the children enjoyed alternative
activity programs, and only 7 to 17 percent
had difficulty turning off their favorite TV
shows.79
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An after-school intervention known as the
GEMS pilot study tested the feasibility, acceptability, and potential efficacy of afterschool dance classes and a family-based intervention to reduce television viewing and
weight gain among African American girls in
Stanford, California. At the follow-up, girls in
the intervention group exhibited trends toward lower body mass index and waist circumference, increased after-school physical
activity, and reduced television, videotape,
and video game use, as compared with the
control group. The treatment group also reported significantly reduced household television viewing and fewer dinners eaten while
watching TV.80
Although intervention studies show the benefit of cutting TV hours, such practical barriers
as long hours of parental work and inadequate child care options make it difficult for
families to implement these changes. For
many families, particularly in low-income,
urban areas without safe places to play outdoors, TV is a substitute babysitter. Mothers
are often more concerned with the types of
TV programs their children watch than with
how much time their children spend watching TV. These mothers raise the issue of affordable and accessible recreation facilities
and programs and say the lack of such options contributes to their children’s watching
more TV at home.81
A systematic review of research on family involvement in weight control recently found
that relatively few intervention studies exist,
but those few suggest that parental involvement helps children lose weight.82 The studies also indicate that results, in terms of
weight loss and behavioral changes, are better when children are treated together with
their parents.83 Involving at least one parent
in a weight-loss process improves overall
short- and long-term weight regulation, as
does overall support from family and
friends.84 For families with several members
battling overweight, family treatment can
substantially reduce the per-person costs of
obesity treatment, and children and their
parents can achieve similar percentages of
overweight change.85
Conclusion
Parents play a critical role at home in preventing childhood obesity, with their role
changing at different stages of their child’s
development. By better understanding their
own role in influencing their child’s dietary
practices, physical activity, sedentary behaviors, and ultimately weight status, parents can
learn how to create a healthful nutrition environment in their home, provide opportunities for physical activity, discourage sedentary
behaviors such as TV viewing, and serve as
role models themselves. Obesity-related intervention programs can use parental involvement as one key to success in developing an environment that fosters healthy
eating and physical activity among children
and adolescents.
Although few interventions solely target
parents, current evidence suggests that parenting interventions may work best as a
component of comprehensive interventions
within a variety of settings, including
schools, health services, or such programs as
WIC. Recent research highlights the success of school-based programs, such as
Planet Health, CATCH, Eat Well and Keep
Moving, and the GEMS pilot study, that incorporate parenting and at-home components into their curricula.86 Another potential avenue is to incorporate parenting
education modules into well-established
public health and educational programs,
such as WIC, Head Start, and birthing
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classes, following the model of such programs as Hip-Hop to Health Jr.87
As more of these interventions are created,
researchers should carefully evaluate their
cost-effectiveness. New interventions should
replace those that are based either in school
alone or in a health center alone with strategies that affect multiple settings at the same
time.88 Community, statewide, and national
obesity-prevention programs should emphasize an educational collaboration among
schools, health centers, and parents.
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THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
Achieving the goal of preventing and controlling the childhood obesity epidemic requires
multifaceted and community-wide programs
and policies. But even in such broad and
comprehensive programs, parents have a
critical and influential role to play. Interventions should involve and work directly with
parents from the very earliest stages of child
development and growth both to make
healthful changes at home and to reinforce
and support healthful eating and regular
physical activity.
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Notes
1. J. P. Kaplan, C. T. Liverman, and V. I. Kraak, eds., Preventing Childhood Obesity: Health in the Balance
(Washington: National Academies Press, 2004).
2. L. Epstein, “Family-Based Behavioural Intervention for Obese Children,” International Journal of Obesity
and Related Metabolic Disorders 20, suppl. 1 (1996): S14–21.
3. S. L. Gortmaker and others, “Reducing Obesity via a School-Based Interdisciplinary Intervention among
Youth: Planet Health,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 153, no. 9 (1999): 1–10; S. L. Gortmaker and others, “Impact of a School-Based Interdisciplinary Intervention on Diet and Physical Activity
among Urban Primary School Children: Eat Well and Keep Moving,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent
Medicine 153, no. 9 (1999): 975–83.
4. W. H. Dietz, “Critical Periods in Childhood for the Development of Obesity,” American Journal of Clinical
Nutrition 59, no. 5 (1994): 955–59; M. M. Abrantes, J. A. Lamounier, and E. A. Colosimo, “Overweight and
Obesity Prevalence among Children and Adolescents from Northeast and Southeast Regions of Brazil,” Journal of Pediatrics (Rio J) 78, no. 4 (2002): 335–40; D. J. Barker and C. H. Fall, “Fetal and Infant Origins of
Cardiovascular Disease,” Archives of Disease in Childhood 68, no. 6 (1993): 797–99; K. Krishnaswamy and
others, “Fetal Malnutrition and Adult Chronic Disease,” Nutrition Review 60, no. 5, pt. 2 (2002): S35–39.
5. Barker and Fall, “Fetal and Infant Origins” (see note 4); C. Power and T. Parsons, “Nutritional and Other
Influences in Childhood as Predictors of Adult Obesity,” Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 59, no. 2
(2000): 267–72; C. Maffeis and L. Tatò, “Long-Term Effects of Childhood Obesity on Morbidity and Mortality,” Hormone Research 55, suppl. 1 (2001): 42–45.
6. Power and Parsons, “Nutritional and Other Influences” (see note 5); Maffeis and Tatò, “Long-Term Effects” (see note 5).
7. R. C. Whitaker and W. H. Dietz, “Role of the Prenatal Environment in the Development of Obesity,” Journal of Pediatrics 132, no. 5 (1998): 768–76.
8. J. Westenhoefer, “Establishing Dietary Habits during Childhood for Long-Term Weight Control,” Annals
of Nutrition and Metabolism 46 (2002): 18–23.
9. M. L. P. Hediger and others, “Association between Infant Breastfeeding and Overweight in Young Children,” Journal of the American Medical Association 285, no. 19 (2001): 2453–60; K. K. L. Ong and others,
“Size at Birth and Early Childhood Growth in Relation to Maternal Smoking, Parity, and Infant BreastFeeding: Longitudinal Birth Cohort Study and Analysis,” Pediatric Research 52, no. 6 (2002): 863–67; M.
W. Gillman and others, “Risk of Overweight among Adolescents Who Were Breastfed as Infants,” Journal
of the American Medical Association 285, no. 19 (2001): 2461–67; R. von Kries and others, “Breast Feeding
and Obesity: Cross Sectional Study,” British Medical Journal 319, no. 7203 (1999): 147–50; L. M. Grummer-Strawn and A. Mei, “Does Breastfeeding Protect against Pediatric Overweight? Analysis of Longitudinal Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Pediatric Nutrition Surveillance System,”
Pediatrics 113, no. 2 (2004): e81–86.
10. Grummer-Strawn and Mei, “Does Breastfeeding Protect?” (see note 9).
11. Hediger and others, “Association between Infant Breastfeeding” (see note 9); Ong and others, “Size at
Birth” (see note 9); Gillman and others, “Risk of Overweight among Adolescents” (see note 9); von Kries
and others, “Breast Feeding and Obesity” (see note 9).
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12. L. L. Birch and J. O. Fisher, “Development of Eating Behaviors among Children and Adolescents,” Pediatrics 101, no. 3, pt. 2 (1998): 539–49; L. L. Birch and J. O. Fisher, “Mothers’ Child-Feeding Practices Influence Daughters’ Eating and Weight,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 71, no. 5 (2000): 1054–61;
J. Wardle and others, “Parental Feeding Style and the Inter-Generational Transmission of Obesity Risk,”
Obesity Research 10, no. 6 (2002): 453–62; T. N. Robinson, “Television Viewing and Childhood Obesity,”
Pediatric Clinics of North America 48, no. 4 (2001): 1017–25; D. Spruijt-Metz and others, “Relation between Mothers’ Child-Feeding Practices and Children’s Adiposity,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
75, no. 3 (2002): 581–86; W. C. Heird, “Parental Feeding Behavior and Children’s Fat Mass,” American
Journal of Clinical Nutrition 75, no. 3 (2002): 451–52; V. Burke, L. J. Beilin, and D. Dunbar, “Family
Lifestyle and Parental Body Mass Index as Predictors of Body Mass Index in Australian Children: A Longitudinal Study,” International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders 25, no. 2 (2001): 147–57;
K. Dettwyler, “Styles of Infant Feeding: Parental/Caretaker Control of Food Consumption in Young Children,” American Anthropology 91 (1989): 696–703; R. C. Klesges and others, “Parental Influence on Food
Selection in Young Children and Its Relationships to Childhood Obesity,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 53, no. 4 (1991): 859–64.
13. A. J. Hill, “Developmental Issues in Attitudes to Food and Diet,” Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 61,
no. 2 (2002): 259–66.
14. L. S. Birch, “Development of Food Acceptance Patterns in the First Years of Life,” Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 57, no. 4 (1998): 617–24.
15. Ibid.
16. Hill, “Developmental Issues” (see note 13).
17. W. Dietz and L. Stern, Guide to Your Child’s Nutrition (New York: Villard, American Academy of Pediatrics, 1999).
18. Birch and Fisher, “Development of Eating Behaviors” (see note 12).
19. Ibid.; Birch, “Development of Food Acceptance” (see note 14).
20. U. K. Koivisto Hursti, “Factors Influencing Children’s Food Choice,” Annals of Medicine 31, suppl. 1
(1999): 26–32.
21. S. A. Oliveria and others, “Parent-Child Relationships in Nutrient Intake: The Framingham Children’s
Study,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 56, no. 3 (1992): 593–98.
22. M. Y. Hood and others, “Parental Eating Attitudes and the Development of Obesity in Children: The
Framingham Children’s Study,” International Journal of Obesity 24, no. 10 (2000): 1319.
23. B. S. Dennison, H. L. Rockwell, and S. L. Baker, “Excess Fruit Juice Consumption by Preschool-Aged
Children Is Associated with Short Stature and Obesity,” Pediatrics 99, no. 1 (1997): 15–22; U. Alexy and
others, “Fruit Juice Consumption and the Prevalence of Obesity and Short Stature in German Preschool
Children: Results of the DONALD Study—Dortmund Nutritional and Anthropometrical Longitudinally
Designed,” Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition 29, no. 3 (1999): 343–49; J. D. Skinner and
others, “Fruit Juice Intake Is Not Related to Children’s Growth,” Pediatrics 103, no. 1 (1999): 58–64; J. A.
Welsh and others, “Overweight among Low-Income Preschool Children Associated with the Consumption
of Sweet Drinks: Missouri, 1999–2002,” Pediatrics 115, no. 2 (2005): e223–29.
24. Dennison, Rockwell, and Baker, “Excess Fruit Juice” (see note 23).
182
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The Role of Parents in Preventing Childhood Obesity
25. Welsh and others, “Overweight among Low-Income Preschool Children” (see note 23).
26. Alexy and others, “Fruit Juice Consumption” (see note 23); Skinner and others, “Fruit Juice Intake” (see
note 23); J. D. Skinner and B. R. Carruth, “A Longitudinal Study of Children’s Juice Intake and Growth:
The Juice Controversy Revisited,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 101, no. 4 (2001): 432–37.
27. H. W. Kohl III and K. E. Hobbs, “Development of Physical Activity Behaviors among Children and Adolescents,” Pediatrics 101, no. 3 (1998): 549–54.
28. R. C. K. Klesges and M. Lisa, “A Longitudinal Analysis of Accelerated Weight Gain in Preschool Children,”
Pediatrics 95, no. 1 (1995): 126; L. L. Moore and others, “Preschool Physical Activity Level and Change in
Body Fatness in Young Children: The Framingham Children’s Study,” American Journal of Epidemiology
142, no. 9 (1995): 982–88.
29. Moore and others, “Preschool Physical Activity” (see note 28).
30. S. G. Trost and others, “Evaluating a Model of Parental Influence on Youth Physical Activity,” American
Journal of Preventive Medicine 25, no. 4 (2003): 277–82.
31. Hood and others, “Parental Eating Attitudes” (see note 22).
32. T. Baranowski and others, “Observations on Physical Activity in Physical Locations: Age, Gender, Ethnicity,
and Month Effects,” Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 64, no. 2 (1993): 127–33; J. F. Sallis and
others, “Correlates of Physical Activity at Home in Mexican-American and Anglo-American Preschool
Children,” Health Psychology 12, no. 5 (1993): 390–98.
33. K. E. Powell, L. M. Martin, and P. P. Chowdhury, “Places to Walk: Convenience and Regular Physical Activity,” American Journal of Public Health 93, no. 9 (2003): 1519–21.
34. A. J. Ariza and others, “Risk Factors for Overweight in Five- to Six-Year-Old Hispanic-American Children:
A Pilot Study,” Journal of Urban Health 81, no. 1 (2004): 150–61.
35. R. H. DuRant and others, “The Relationship among Television Watching, Physical Activity, and Body Composition of Young Children,” Pediatrics 94, no. 4, pt. 1(1994): 449–55.
36. B. A. Dennison, T. A. Erb, and P. L. Jenkins, “Television Viewing and Television in Bedroom Associated
with Overweight Risk among Low-Income Preschool Children,” Pediatrics 109, no. 6 (2002): 1028–35.
37. A. A. Hedley and others, “Prevalence of Overweight and Obesity among U.S. Children, Adolescents, and
Adults, 1999–2002,” Journal of the American Medical Association 291, no. 23 (2004): 2847–50.
38. M. W. Gillman and others, “Family Dinner and Diet Quality among Older Children and Adolescents,”
Archives of Family Medicine 9, no. 3 (2000): 235–40; D. Neumark-Sztainer and others, “Family Meal Patterns: Associations with Sociodemographic Characteristics and Improved Dietary Intake among Adolescents,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 103, no. 3 (2003): 317–22.
39. Gillman and others, “Family Dinner” (see note 38).
40. K. W. Cullen and others, “Availability, Accessibility, and Preferences for Fruit, 100% Fruit Juice, and Vegetables Influence Children’s Dietary Behavior,” Health Education Behavior 30, no. 5 (2003): 615–26;
Neumark-Sztainer and others, “Family Meal Patterns” (see note 38).
41. J. Putman and J. Allshouse, Food Consumption, Price, and Expenditures, 1970–97 (U.S. Department of
Agriculture, 1999); C. Cavadini, A. M. Siega-Riz, and B. M. Popkin, “U.S. Adolescent Food Intake Trends
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A n a C . L i n d s a y , K a t a r i n a M . S u s s n e r, J u h e e K i m , a n d S t e v e n G o r t m a k e r
from 1965 to 1996,” Archives of Disease in Childhood 83, no. 1 (2000): 18–24 (erratum in Archives of Disease in Childhood 87, no. 1 [2002]: 85).
42. D. S. Ludwig, K. E. Peterson, and S. L. Gortmaker, “Relation between Consumption of Sugar-Sweetened
Drinks and Childhood Obesity: A Prospective, Observational Analysis,” Lancet 357, no. 9255 (2001):
505–08.
43. C. S. Berkey and others, “Sugar-Added Beverages and Adolescent Weight Change,” Obesity Research 12,
no. 5 (2004): 778–88.
44. J. James and others, “Preventing Childhood Obesity by Reducing Consumption of Carbonated Drinks:
Cluster Randomised Controlled Trial,” British Medical Journal 328, no. 7450 (2004): 1237.
45. C. J. Crespo and others, “Television Watching, Energy Intake, and Obesity in U.S. Children: Results from
the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1988–1994,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 155, no. 3 (2001): 360–65.
46. W. H. J. Dietz and S. L. Gortmaker, “Do We Fatten Our Children at the Television Set? Obesity and Television Viewing in Children and Adolescents,” Pediatrics 75, no. 5 (1985): 807–12; S. L. Gortmaker and others, “Television Viewing as a Cause of Increasing Obesity among Children in the United States,
1986–1990,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 150, no. 4 (1996): 356–62; R. Pate and J. Ross,
“The National Children and Youth Fitness Study II: Factors Associated with Health-Related Fitness,”
Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance 58 (1987): 93–95; L. A. Tucker, “The Relationship of
Television Viewing to Physical Fitness and Obesity,” Adolescence 21, no. 84 (1986): 797–806; C. S. Berkey
and others, “One-Year Changes in Activity and in Inactivity among 10- to 15-Year-Old Boys and Girls: Relationship to Change in Body Mass Index,” Pediatrics 111, no. 4 (2003): 836–43; R. J. Hancox, B. J. Milne,
and R. Poulton, “Association between Child and Adolescent Television Viewing and Adult Health: A Longitudinal Birth Cohort Study,” Lancet 364, no. 9430 (2004): 257–62.
47. T. N. Robinson, “Reducing Children’s Television Viewing to Prevent Obesity: A Randomized Controlled
Trial,” Journal of the American Medical Association 282, no. 16 (1999): 1561–67; S. L. Gortmaker and others, “Reducing Obesity” (see note 3).
48. D. S. Ludwig and S. L. Gortmaker, “Programming Obesity in Childhood,” Lancet 364, no. 9430 (2004):
226–27.
49. L. H. Epstein and others, “Effects of Manipulating Sedentary Behavior on Physical Activity and Food Intake,” Journal of Pediatrics 140, no. 3 (2002): 334–39.
50. D. F. Roberts, U. G. Foehr, and U. Rideout, Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8–18 Year-Olds (Menlo
Park, Calif.: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 2005).
51. S. A. Bowman and others, “Effects of Fast-Food Consumption on Energy Intake and Diet Quality among
Children in a National Household Survey,” Pediatrics 113, no. 1 (2004): 112–18; J. M. McGinnis, J. A.
Gootman, and V. I. Kraak, eds., Food Marketing to Youth: Threat or Opportunity? (Washington: National
Academies Press, 2005).
52. Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout, Generation M (see note 50).
53. Ibid.; J. L. Wiecha and others, “Household Television Access: Associations with Screen Time, Reading, and
Homework among Youth,” Ambulatory Pediatrics 1, no. 5 (2001): 244–51.
54. Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout, Generation M (see note 50).
184
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The Role of Parents in Preventing Childhood Obesity
55. M. Fogelholm and others, “Parent-Child Relationship of Physical Activity Patterns and Obesity,” International Journal of Obesity 23 (1999): 1262; M. T. McGuire and others, “Parental Correlates of Physical Activity in a Racially/Ethnically Diverse Adolescent Sample,” Journal of Adolescent Health 30, no. 4 (2002):
253–61.
56. A. Wagner and others, “Parent-Child Physical Activity Relationships in 12-Year-Old French Students Do
Not Depend on Family Socioeconomic Status,” Diabetes & Metabolism 30, no. 4 (2004): 359–66.
57. S. Y. Kimm and others, “Longitudinal Changes in Physical Activity in a Biracial Cohort during Adolescence,” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 32, no. 8 (2000): 1445–54; J. F. Sallis, J. J. Prochaska, and
W. C. Taylor, “A Review of Correlates of Physical Activity of Children and Adolescents,” Medicine &Science in Sports & Exercise 32, no. 5 (2000): 963–75.
58. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Healthy People 2010” (U.S. Government Printing Office, 2000); National Association for Sports and Physical Education, Physical Activity for Children: A Statement of Guidelines for Children 5–12 (Reston, Va., 2004); L. Kann and others, “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance–United States, 1999,” MMWR CDC Surveillance Summaries 49, no. 5 (2000): 1–32.
59. R. A. Forshee, P. A. Anderson, and M. L. Story, “The Role of Beverage Consumption, Physical Activity,
Sedentary Behavior, and Demographics on Body Mass Index of Adolescents,” International Journal of
Food Science and Nutrition 55, no. 6 (2004): 463–78.
60. L. L. Moore and others, “Influence of Parents’ Physical Activity Levels on Activity Levels of Young Children,” Journal of Pediatrics 118, no. 2 (1991): 215–19; Trost and others, “Evaluating a Model” (see note 30).
61. McGuire and others, “Parental Correlates” (see note 55); Sallis, Prochaska, and Taylor, “A Review of Correlates” (see note 57); J. F. Sallis and others, “Parental Behavior in Relation to Physical Activity and Fitness
in 9-Year-Old Children,” American Journal of Diseases of Children 146, no. 11 (1992): 1383–88.
62. Trost and others, “Evaluating a Model” (see note 30).
63. Ibid.; Sallis and others, “Parental Behavior” (see note 61).
64. J. C. Kimiecik and T. S. Horn, “Parental Beliefs and Children’s Moderate-to-Vigorous Physical Activity,”
Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 69, no. 2 (1998): 163–75.
65. A. C. Gielen and others, “Child Pedestrians: The Role of Parental Beliefs and Practices in Promoting Safe
Walking in Urban Neighborhoods,” Journal of Urban Health 81, no. 4 (2004): 545–55.
66. T. N. Robinson and others, “Dance and Reducing Television Viewing to Prevent Weight Gain in AfricanAmerican Girls: The Stanford GEMS Pilot Study,” Ethnicity and Disease 13, no. 1, suppl. 1 (2003):
S65–77.
67. D. B. Johnson and others, “Statewide Intervention to Reduce Television Viewing in WIC Clients and
Staff,” American Journal of Health Promotion 19, no. 6 (2005): 418–21.
68. L. Y. Wang and others, “Economic Analysis of a School-Based Obesity Prevention Program,” Obesity Research 11, no. 11 (2003): 1313–24.
69. B. S. Ford and others, “Primary Care Interventions to Reduce Television Viewing in African-American
Children,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 22, no. 2 (2002): 106–09.
70. B. M. Beech and others, “Child- and Parent-Targeted Interventions: The Memphis GEMS Pilot Study,”
Ethnicity and Disease 13, no. 1, suppl. 1 (2003): S40–53.
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71. M. J. Muller, S. Danielzik, and S. Pust, “School- and Family-Based Interventions to Prevent Overweight in
Children,” Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 64, no. 2 (2005): 249–54.
72. M. L. Fitzgibbon and others, “Two-Year Follow-up Results for Hip-Hop to Health Jr.: A Randomized Controlled Trial for Overweight Prevention in Preschool Minority Children,” Journal of Pediatrics 146, no. 5
(2005): 618–25.
73. K. T. Coleman and others, “Prevention of the Epidemic Increase in Child Risk of Overweight in LowIncome Schools: The El Paso Coordinated Approach to Child Health,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 159, no. 3 (2005): 217–24.
74. Gortmaker and others, “Impact of a School-Based Interdisciplinary Intervention” (see note 3).
75. V. R. Chomitz and others, “Promoting Healthy Weight among Elementary School Children via a Health
Report Card Approach,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 157, no. 8 (2003): 765–72.
76. Gortmaker, “Reducing Obesity” (see note 3).
77. Wang, “Economic Analysis of a School-Based Obesity Prevention Program” (see note 68); S. B. Austin and
others, “The Impact of a School-Based Obesity Prevention Trial on Disordered Weight-Control Behaviors
in Early Adolescent Girls,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 159, no. 3 (2005): 225–30.
78. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Healthy People 2010” (see note 58); Gortmaker and others, “Impact of a School-Based Interdisciplinary Intervention” (see note 3); Robinson and others, “Dance
and Reducing Television Viewing” (see note 66).
79. J. Salmon and others, “Reducing Sedentary Behaviour and Increasing Physical Activity among 10-Year-Old
Children: Overview and Process Evaluation of the �Switch-Play’ Intervention,” Health Promotion International 20, no. 1 (2005): 7–17.
80. Robinson and others, “Dance and Reducing Television Viewing” (see note 66).
81. P. Gordon-Larsen and others, “Barriers to Physical Activity: Qualitative Data on Caregiver-Daughter Perceptions and Practices,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 27, no. 3 (2004): 218–23.
82. N. McLean and others, “Family Involvement in Weight Control, Weight Maintenance, and Weight-Loss
Interventions: A Systematic Review of Randomized Trials,” International Journal of Obesity and Related
Metabolic Disorders 27, no. 9 (2003): 987–1005.
83. Muller, Danielzik, and Pust, “School- and Family-Based Interventions” (see note 71); M. Golan and others,
“Parents as the Exclusive Agents of Change in the Treatment of Childhood Obesity,” American Journal of
Clinical Nutrition 67, no. 6 (1998): 1130–35.
84. Epstein, “Family-Based Behavioural Intervention” (see note 2).
85. G. S. Goldfield and others, “Cost-Effectiveness of Group and Mixed Family-Based Treatment for Childhood
Obesity,” International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders 25, no. 12 (2001): 1843–49.
86. Gortmaker and others, “Impact of a School-Based Interdisciplinary Intervention” (see note 3); Coleman
and others, “Prevention of the Epidemic Increase” (see note 73); Robinson and others, “Dance and Reducing Television Viewing” (see note 66).
87. Fitzgibbon and others, “Two-Year Follow-up Results” (see note 72).
88. Muller, Danielzik, and Pust, “School- and Family-Based Interventions” (see note 71).
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Targeting Interventions for
Ethnic Minority and Low-Income
Populations
Shiriki Kumanyika and Sonya Grier
Summary
Although rates of childhood obesity among the general population are alarmingly high, they are
higher still in ethnic minority and low-income communities. The disparities pose a major challenge for policymakers and practitioners planning strategies for obesity prevention. In this article Shiriki Kumanyika and Sonya Grier summarize differences in childhood obesity prevalence
by race and ethnicity and by socioeconomic status. They show how various environmental factors can have larger effects on disadvantaged and minority children than on their advantaged
white peers—and thus contribute to disparities in obesity rates.
The authors show, for example, that low-income and minority children watch more television
than white, non-poor children and are potentially exposed to more commercials advertising
high-calorie, low-nutrient food during an average hour of TV programming. They note that
neighborhoods where low-income and minority children live typically have more fast-food
restaurants and fewer vendors of healthful foods than do wealthier or predominantly white
neighborhoods. They cite such obstacles to physical activity as unsafe streets, dilapidated parks,
and lack of facilities. In the schools that low-income and minority children attend, however,
they see opportunities to lead the way to effective obesity prevention. Finally, the authors
examine several aspects of the home environment—breast-feeding, television viewing, and
parental behaviors—that may contribute to childhood obesity but be amenable to change
through targeted intervention.
Kumanyika and Grier point out that policymakers aiming to prevent obesity can use many existing policy levers to reach ethnic minority and low-income children and families: Medicaid,
the State Child Health Insurance Program, and federal nutrition “safety net” programs. Ultimately, winning the fight against childhood obesity in minority and low-income communities
will depend on the nation’s will to change the social and physical environments in which these
communities exist.
www.futureofchildren.org
Shiriki Kumanyika is a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology and pediatrics (nutrition) at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Sonya Grier is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania.
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R
ates of childhood obesity, now
far too high among all U.S.
children, are even higher
among the nation’s ethnic minority and low-income chil1
dren. These ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in childhood obesity rates present yet
another challenge for researchers, policymakers, and practitioners who are focusing
on obesity prevention.
In this article, we present and summarize
data from multiple sources on racial, ethnic,
and related socioeconomic correlates of obesity. We document differences in child obesity across race and ethnic groups and between low- and high-income children. We
then consider which obesity-promoting factors might be more prevalent or more intensified among low-income and ethnic minority
children than among the general population,
with an eye toward identifying modifications
that would do the most to prevent obesity.
We try to highlight issues for diverse minority
populations, but because far more information is available about African Americans and
Hispanic Americans than about other groups,
the discussion focuses mostly on these two
populations.2
Obesity Prevalence among
Minority and Low-Income
Children
No single data source provides information
on trends in child obesity for all the major
racial and ethnic groups in the United States.
The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), a nationally representative survey that has been conducted periodically since the early 1970s, has large
enough samples of white, African American,
and (since 1982) Mexican American children
to estimate obesity rates within racial and
ethnic groups at different points in time.
188
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
Table 1, which is based on NHANES data,
shows rates of obesity for white, African
American, and Mexican American boys and
girls in two age groups, ages six to eleven and
twelve to nineteen, for three time periods
since the mid-1970s. Although obesity rates
have increased for boys and girls within each
ethnic and racial group, they have increased
more for African American and Mexican
American children. By 1999–2002, obesity
rates were higher for both of these two groups
than for white children within each age and
gender group. In some cases, obesity rates for
ethnic minority children exceeded rates for
white children by 10 to 12 percentage points.
For boys of both age groups, the obesity rate
among Mexican Americans exceeded that
among African Americans. For example,
nearly a quarter of Mexican American adolescent boys were obese in 1999–2002, as against
19 percent of African Americans and 15 percent of whites. This pattern differs for girls,
with the highest obesity rates found among
African American girls. For example, among
adolescent girls, 24 percent of African Americans, 20 percent of Mexican Americans, and
13 percent of whites were obese.
Several other ethnic minority groups have
high rates of child obesity. Measures of obesity for preschool children participating in
Hawaii’s Supplemental Nutrition Program for
Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) indicate
that more than a quarter of Samoan children
are obese, a rate more than double that for any
other ethnic subgroup represented in the sample.3 Note, however, that the WIC sample is
not representative—families must be lowincome and nutritionally “at risk” to qualify.
Obesity rates are also high among American
Indian children. A large Indian Health Service
study estimated obesity prevalence at 22 percent for boys and 18 percent for girls based on
data for more than 12,000 five- to seventeen-
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Ta r g e t i n g I n t e r v e n t i o n s f o r E t h n i c M i n o r i t y a n d L o w - I n c o m e P o p u l a t i o n s
Table 1. Percentage of U.S. Children and Adolescents Who Are Obese
(BMI ³ 95th Percentile), by Sex, Age, Race, and Hispanic Origin, 1976–2002
Sex
Race and Hispanic origin a
Boys
White
1976–80 b
1988–94
1999–2002
6–11 years of age
African American
Mexican American
Girls
White
African American
Mexican American
6.1
10.7
14.0
6.8
12.3
17.0
13.3
17.5
26.5
9.8c
5.2
13.1
11.2
17.0
22.8
9.8
15.3
17.1
12–19 years of age
Boys
Girls
White
3.8
11.6
14.6
African American
6.1
10.7
18.7
Mexican American
7.7
14.1
24.7
White
4.6
8.9
12.7
African American
10.7
16.3
23.6
Mexican American
8.8
13.4c
19.6
Source: National Center for Health Statistics, Health, United States, 2004, with Chartbook on Trends in the Health of Americans (Hyattsville, Md., 2004), table 70.
a. Data for whites and African Americans are specifically for those without Hispanic or Latino origin; Mexican Americans may be of any race.
b. Data for Mexican Americans are for 1982–84.
c. Estimates are considered unreliable (standard error: 20 to 30 percent).
year-old American Indian children in North
and South Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska.4 A
study of seven American Indian communities
in Arizona, New Mexico, and South Dakota
reported obesity prevalence of 26.8 percent
for boys and 30.5 percent for girls based on
data for 1,704 elementary school children with
an average age of 7.6 years.5 As with U.S. children generally, trend data for Navajo six- to
twelve-year-olds showed an increase in obesity
rates over time.6
Asian American children are an exception to
the general pattern of higher obesity rates
among ethnic minority groups. A 2003 study
of New York City elementary school children
found obesity rates of 31 percent for Hispanics, 23 percent for African Americans, 16 percent for whites, and 14 percent for Asian
Americans.7 Another study compared overweight (with an 85th percentile BMI cutoff)
for white, African American, Hispanic, and
Asian American adolescents in 1996, using
data from the National Longitudinal Study of
Adolescent Health.8 This survey of more than
14,000 students in seventh through twelfth
grade indicates that Asian American adolescents have relatively low rates of overweight.
The share of boys that were overweight was
23 percent among Asian Americans, 26 percent among African Americans, 27 percent
among whites, and 28 percent among Hispanics. Among girls, only 10 percent of Asian
Americans were overweight, as against 22
percent of whites, 30 percent of Hispanics,
and 38 percent of African Americans. However, in adults, a BMI below the usual cutoff
for obesity is associated with higher health
risks in people of Asian origin when compared to other populations.9 If this case is
also true in children, the lower prevalence of
obesity in Asian American children does not
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Shiriki Kumanyika and Sonya Grier
necessarily reflect an equivalent lower level
of health risk.
Low-income children are at excess risk of
obesity regardless of ethnicity, although ethnic differences in pediatric obesity appear at
lower-income levels.10 Several authors have
analyzed NHANES data on the links between
socioeconomic status and obesity among children and youth overall and in specific age
groups.11 One analysis of two- to nineteen-
Low-income children are
at excess risk of obesity
regardless of ethnicity,
although ethnic differences
in pediatric obesity appear
at lower-income levels.
year-old children in NHANES surveys between 1971–74 and 1999–2002 finds higher
rates of obesity among low-income children
than among all children after 1976–80.12 Similarly, the National Longitudinal Survey of
Youth for four- to twelve-year-olds indicates
that low-income children have higher obesity
rates than do wealthier children.13
The association between socioeconomic status and obesity in school-aged children and
adolescents varies by ethnicity and gender
and appears to be quite complex.14 In general, among white children, obesity typically
declines as income and parental education
increase. Different patterns have been found
for children from ethnic minority groups. For
example, among twelve- to seventeen-yearold non-Hispanic white children in the
1988–94 NHANES survey, rates of obesity
decline for both boys and girls as family in190
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
come increases. By contrast, among African
Americans and Mexican Americans, girls’
obesity rates increase with income; boys’
rates show no consistent pattern.15 Another
study found that although rates of obesity for
white girls decrease as family income rises,
rates for African American girls are higher in
the lowest and highest income ranges than in
the in-between bracket.16 For both groups,
however, obesity rates decline with higher
parental education. An analysis of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
Growth and Health Study also noted ethnic
differences in the relationship between socioeconomic status and obesity.17 It found
the expected inverse link between obesity
and both parental income and education—
with obesity decreasing as income or education increased—in white girls but not in
African American girls. Overall, these studies
indicate that differences in obesity rates
across race and ethnic groups do not simply
reflect differences in the average socioeconomic status across groups.
In summary, obesity rates are higher for
African American and Hispanic children and
adolescents than for their white peers. Among
African Americans rates are particularly high
among girls, although the disparity varies by
age and socioeconomic status. Hispanic boys
seem to be at particularly high risk for obesity.
Obesity rates for American Indian children
appear to be comparable to or in some cases
higher than those for African American children. Samoan children are also at high risk.
Asian American children, by contrast, are less
likely than those from other ethnic groups to
be obese by standard definitions although the
applicability of the standard definitions to
Asian Americans is unclear. Although poorer
children are more likely to be obese when all
children are considered, this link varies across
ethnic and racial groups.
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Health Effects of Childhood
Obesity on Minority and
Low-Income Populations
Early observers tracking the increase in
childhood obesity were concerned that obese
children would become obese adults and suffer obesity-related health complications.18
Their concerns, however, are now more immediate: obese children are already suffering
from these complications. Stephen Daniels,
in an article in this volume, documents the
many health problems that accompany childhood obesity. Obesity-related diseases seen
in children include precursors of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and sleepdisordered breathing.19
Ethnic minority and low-income children appear more likely to experience some of the
obesity-related health problems. Type 2 diabetes provides a useful example. Among
adults, type 2 diabetes is more common
among African Americans and Hispanics
than among whites. Although many of the
data on type 2 diabetes in children come
from clinic records or case studies rather
than from population samples, the data
strongly suggest that the patterns of diabetes
risk for children and adolescents parallel
those for adults.20 Similarly, symptoms of
metabolic syndrome—an important risk factor for diabetes and cardiovascular disease
among adults—are more prevalent in some
although not all minority youth populations.21
In the 1988–94 NHANES, the metabolic
syndrome was more prevalent in Mexican
American adolescents than in whites (girls
only) but less prevalent in blacks than in
whites (both sexes).22 Left ventricular hypertrophy, or thickening of the heart’s main
pumping chamber, and sleep apnea are two
other health consequences of pediatric obesity that are also more prevalent in some ethnic minority groups. For example, one study
of a sample of children (with an average age
of 13.6 years) being evaluated for high blood
pressure found left ventricular hypertrophy
in 70 percent of Hispanics, 39 percent of
African Americans, and 33 percent of
whites.23 In an overnight sleep-monitoring
study of children aged two to eighteen years,
African Americans had higher odds than
whites of having sleep apnea.24
The higher rates of obesity among ethnic minority and low-income children, when combined with the adverse health effects of child
obesity, are likely to produce continued racial
and economic differences in health outcomes. Preventing obesity for all children
may be a way to reduce socioeconomic and
ethnic health disparities.
Understanding and Closing
the Gap
Effectively addressing ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in childhood obesity requires understanding which causes of obesity
might be especially prevalent or intensified
in ethnic minority and low-income populations; understanding how aspects of the social, cultural, and economic environments of
minority and low-income children might
magnify the effects of factors that cause obesity; and determining which changes in those
environments would help most to reduce
obesity. In what follows, we discuss these issues in relation to media and marketing influences, community food access, built environments, schools, and home environments,
noting in each case how factors that may promote obesity are particularly likely to affect
low-income and minority youth.
Media and Marketing
Research suggests that low-income and ethnic minority youth are disproportionately exposed to marketing activities.25 A Kaiser
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Foundation report found that among children eight to eighteen years old, ethnic minorities use entertainment media more heavily than majority youth do. African
Americans and Hispanics spend significantly
more time watching TV and movies and playing video games than do white youth.26
African American youth also watch on-screen
media (TV, DVDs, videos, movies) more than
Hispanics and whites do, and Hispanics
watch such media significantly more than
whites do. Television is especially prevalent
in African American and low-income households. Media use differs, as well, by socioeconomic status. Low-income children watch
TV for more hours and have significantly
higher levels of total media exposure than
higher-income children.27 Consumers in lowincome households, who are heavy viewers of
daytime television, are more likely to view
television advertising as authoritative and as
helpful in selecting products, and they may
prefer it to print media.28
Because of their heavy media use, ethnic minority and low-income youth are exposed to a
great deal of food advertising at home. Research has found that such advertising can affect children’s food preferences after even
brief exposure.29 A study of media use among
Latino preschoolers confirmed just how influential such commercials can be. Sixtythree percent of mothers said that in the past
week their preschooler had asked for a toy
advertised on television, 55 percent reported
that their preschooler had asked for an advertised food or drink, and 67 percent noted that
their preschooler had asked to go to an advertised store or restaurant.30 Older elementary school children exposed to television
commercials for sweets and other snacks
were more likely to choose candy and sugary
drinks and less likely to choose fruit and orange juice when offered a snack.31
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THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
Most research on food advertising, however,
does not focus on ethnic minority or lowincome youth. A systematic review of the effects of food promotion on children examined more than 100 articles, fewer than six of
which dealt explicitly with ethnic minority or
low-income children.32 Experimental evidence, however, indicates that ethnic minorities seem especially responsive to targeted
ads.33 African American adolescents, for example, identify with black characters in advertisements, and they rate advertisements
featuring these characters more favorably.34
Such responses may lead them to buy and
consume less nutritious food products when
advertised by these characters.
Ethnic minority and low-income children
may also be exposed to a different mix of information than are other children. Content
analyses of television advertising have found
that shows featuring African Americans have
more food commercials than do general
prime-time shows and that these commercials feature more energy-dense foods.35 Advertisements for such products appear to be
particularly effective in increasing children’s
total caloric consumption.36 Advertisements
in African American adult magazines are also
dominated by low-cost, low-nutrition, energy-dense foods, and the magazines are less
likely to contain health-oriented messages.37
Similarly, a content analysis of the products
advertised to low-income consumers found
that most featured food and drinks, largely
items such as cookies and other snacks.38
Such an imbalanced information environment makes it harder for parents to know
about and to provide more healthful options.
Food and food-related images, such as body
size, are also pervasive in various media. A
content analysis of movies—and ethnic minorities watch movies more often than whites
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do—found stereotypical food-related behaviors with respect to body shape, gender, and
ethnic background.39 More healthful, low-fat
foods often appeared in scenes involving
well-educated and affluent characters. Overweight characters were underrepresented,
but when they did appear, they ate more
high-fat, high-calorie foods than did their
thinner counterparts. There is no evidence,
however, on whether the movies’ representation of food and food-related images affects
how children perceive themselves or alters
the foods they consume.
More research on the specific marketing environments of ethnic minority and low-income
consumers is urgently needed. Policymakers
and practitioners should consider policy interventions, including strengthening marketing
and advertising guidelines in ways that reduce
the overexposure of all children to marketing
for high-calorie, high-fat foods.40 Because
ethnic minority and low-income children are
exposed to more media than other children,
policies that improve marketing and advertising may be most beneficial for these groups of
children. Researchers have also suggested
that schools can reduce the negative effects of
advertising on minority and low-income children by teaching media literacy courses that
make children aware of the many messages
they receive daily from the media and how
those messages can affect their attitudes and
behavior.41
Food Access and Availability
The characteristics of communities in which
ethnic minority and low-income children live
may affect the foods that are available for
their consumption. Compared with more affluent communities, minority and lowincome communities have fewer than average supermarkets and convenience stores
that stock fresh, good-quality, affordable
foods such as whole grains or low-fat dairy
products and meats.42 A 1995 study estimated that supermarket flight from the inner
cities left the typical low-income neighborhood with 30 percent fewer supermarkets
than higher-income areas. At least one study
Content analyses of television
advertising have found that
shows featuring African
Americans have more food
commercials than do general
prime-time shows and that
these commercials feature
more energy-dense foods.
that included a large cohort of African Americans has linked supermarket availability directly to fruit and vegetable intake.43
With fewer supermarkets available, lowincome minority families may be more likely
to shop in small corner stores or bodegas.
These stores tend to offer markedly less
healthful foods in lower-income neighborhoods, as demonstrated in a New York study
comparing in-store food availability in low-income, minority East Harlem and the adjacent, affluent Upper East Side.44 Prices of
more healthful foods may also be higher in
bodegas and corner stores than in supermarkets. One study reported that although lowfat milk was available in more than two-thirds
of the bodegas in areas where residents were
less educated, had lower incomes, and were
Latino, some such stores charged more for
low-fat milk than for regular milk.45 Evidence
shows that higher prices for more healthful
foods have an effect on children’s weight. A
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recent study based on a nationally representative sample of elementary school children
concludes that children living in areas with
lower prices of fruits and vegetables had significantly lower gains in BMI between kindergarten and third grade. Further, these effects
were larger for children in poverty, children
who were obese or overweight in kindergarten, and Asian and Hispanic children.46
This evidence is consistent with that from a
study of low-income women in Baltimore that
A study in New Orleans
found that black
neighborhoods had more
fast-food restaurants per
square mile than did white
neighborhoods.
found the cost of fresh produce kept them
from eating more fruits and vegetables.47
African American and low-income neighborhoods also have many fast-food restaurants. A
recent study found that African American
adults ate more fast foods than did whites,
perhaps because of their greater availability.48 A study in New Orleans found that
black neighborhoods had more fast-food
restaurants per square mile than did white
neighborhoods.49 Another study found that
areas of South Los Angeles with fewer
African American residents (8 percent on average) were twice as likely as areas with more
African Americans (36 percent on average) to
have full-service rather than limited-service,
fast-food restaurants.50
Studies of parents’ attitudes toward fast-food
restaurants highlight the problems that may
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be produced by having fast-food outlets
nearby as well as the reasons why fast-food
outlets are popular among low-income families. Hispanic women in a low-income community reported that the overabundance of
fast-food restaurants and their intensive marketing interfered with their ability to exercise
control over their children’s eating habits.
They also reported that acculturation to fast
food caused their children to reject more
healthful, traditional Hispanic foods.51 But
Latino women in a California study preferred
fast-food restaurants and especially valued
their family- and child-friendly aspects.52
On the important question of whether living
near fast-food restaurants increases the
chance that children become obese, the evidence is inconclusive. Research has found that
foods served in fast-food outlets are much
more energy-dense and have a higher fat content than meals consumed at home.53 Furthermore, there is a correlation between fast-food
consumption and body weight, at least among
adults. In a survey of women aged twenty to
seventy years in North Carolina, those who reported eating at fast-food restaurants “usually”
or “often” had higher energy and fat intakes
and higher body mass indexes than those who
reported eating at them “rarely” or “never.”54
In the Coronary Artery Risk Development in
Young Adults (CARDIA) Study, which followed for fifteen years a group of young adults
aged eighteen to thirty at the time of enrollment, those who ate at fast-food restaurants
more than twice a week weighed an average of
4.5 kilograms more than those who ate in
them less than once a week.55
This evidence suggests that if children who
live close to fast-food outlets consume more
fast food, they may be more likely to become
obese. But the few studies that specifically
examine how the proximity of fast-food out-
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lets affects children’s fast-food consumption
and their weight status do not find a connection. Living close to fast-food restaurants was
not linked with being overweight among
three- to five-year-old children in Cincinnati
or to the self-reported frequency of fast-food
restaurant use among seventh- to twelfthgrade students in Minnesota.56 Researchers
require more evidence, based on children
from more geographical regions and age
groups, before they can draw a definitive
conclusion on this issue.
Built Environments
Where and how often children and adolescents engage in physical activity depends on
the physical design and quality of their neighborhoods.57 In low-income urban communities, the built environment affects children’s
physical activity much more than it affects
that of adults. Because many adults do not
own cars and must depend on public transportation, they often have to be physically active just to get to and from work or shopping.58 By contrast, for safety reasons, parents
may restrict their children’s outdoor activities
by using a combination of TV and easy access
to snack foods to get children to go straight
home from school and stay there. Children’s
limited access to parks and recreational facilities may also curtail their physical activity.59
Neighborhood or community constraints on
children’s physical activity are likely to vary
regionally and across ethnic groups. In lowincome communities, family work schedules,
discretionary time, money, and car ownership
may make it hard for parents and caregivers
to transport children to sports and other
recreational activities, suggesting the need to
develop nearby after-school or communitybased, supervised programs.
Despite the logic that inadequate opportunities for physical activity should adversely af-
fect children’s weight, the evidence on this
issue is limited. Several observational studies
have failed to link children’s weight status to
the availability of neighborhood parks or to
parental perceptions about safety.60 A better
approach would be to study direct links between specific neighborhood-based physical
activity options and the types and amounts of
physical activity in which children engage,
taking into account how their family or home
life, as well as the neighborhood’s social organization, affects their access to these options. Additional research on this topic that
focuses on low-income and minority children
is needed.
School Settings
Schools offer opportunities for improving
children’s nutrition, increasing their physical
activity, and preventing obesity. But schools in
inner-city or low-income communities may be
unable to take advantage of these opportunities, as most obesity-prevention initiatives
proposed to date require significant funding
and some depend on a school’s physical facilities and neighborhood characteristics.61 In
addition, school officials, teachers, and parents have many competing priorities, such as
new academic accountability standards and
efforts to prevent drug abuse and violence.
Research on whether schools in low-income
areas are less able to provide students with
healthful foods or physical activity options is
inconclusive. Several reports have compared
environmental quality, resources, and perstudent spending in schools with differing
community income or differing shares of minority students. A report by the U.S. General
Accounting Office (GAO) focused on such
school problems as inadequate or unsatisfactory buildings, building features, or environmental conditions as well as expenses above
the national average. Schools reporting the
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most problems in all areas were large schools,
central-city schools, schools in the western
United States, schools with populations of at
least 50.5 percent minority students, and
schools with 70 percent or more poor students.62 The differences, however, were
often not striking, and the greatest variations
were often by state.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis addressed general health and
safety issues as well as conditions and policies with more direct implications for physical activity and nutrition. It included athletic facilities and playground equipment,
kitchen facilities and equipment, the presence of a cafeteria, soft drink vending contracts, and junk food promotion.63 Contrary
to expectation, schools in urban areas,
schools with a high share of minority children, and schools with a low share of college-bound students were not worse off
than other schools. Schools with the best
health-protective environments turned out
to be elementary schools, public schools,
and larger schools.
Poorer children benefit from the National
School Lunch and National School Breakfast
Programs. These food programs, which provide free or reduced-price meals to lowincome children, disproportionately enroll
minority children. In 2004, in fourth grade,
for example, nearly 70 percent of African
American students, as against 23 percent of
whites, were eligible for free or reducedprice lunches. Nearly half of African American students, as against only 5 percent of
whites, attended schools where most children
are eligible for subsidized meals.64 Because
these meals must meet federally set nutritional standards, these programs offer an opportunity to improve the nutrition of lowincome minority children.
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THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
Although poorer children are eligible for free
or reduced-price lunches in school, many
schools offer a wide variety of “competitive”
foods that do not meet nutritional standards.
Schools that participate in the school lunch
program face some federal restrictions on
what foods they can serve during lunch periods in the school cafeteria, and many states
and school districts are imposing additional
standards.65 But children can often purchase
sodas and high-fat, high-sugar foods at school.
As noted by the Government Accountability
Office, these unregulated competitive foods
undermine the school breakfast and school
lunch programs, with negative nutrition implications for the children, but they may generate substantial revenue for the schools.66
The GAO report does not indicate whether
schools with limited resources depend more
on revenue from competitive food sales than
do wealthier schools. If they do, limitations on
competitive food sales may impose a relatively
larger burden on low-income schools. More
research on this topic is needed. If in fact lowincome schools will be disproportionately
harmed by restrictions on competitive foods,
then new regulations on competitive food
sales might be coupled with compensatory financing for the schools most harmed.
In addition to restricting the sales of less
healthful foods, many schools are considering
interventions to promote the consumption of
more nutritious foods. Some of these initiatives may be more effective in schools serving
low-income children than in schools with
more resources. For example, an intervention that lowered the prices of fruits and vegetables had a greater impact in inner-city
schools than in suburban schools and suggests that making nutritious foods more accessible in these schools can increase demand.67 In-school free fruit and vegetable
distribution should be of particular benefit to
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low-income children, who have less access to
fruits and vegetables than their more affluent
counterparts. Such approaches as salad bars
with links to local farmers’ markets or even
student gardening programs could also be
useful.68 But before any such programs can
begin on a large scale, comparative analysis of
the availability of the community resources
required for feasibility is essential.
Home and Family Settings
Another important question for researchers
analyzing ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in childhood obesity is whether differences in home environments contribute to
differences in child obesity rates. There are
various underlying reasons why parenting
practices may differ across ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Minority and low-income
households have a higher share of femaleheaded families, lower parental education,
and higher rates of teen parenting, all of
which may profoundly affect the home environment.69 Economic insecurity can influence
food choices directly, by encouraging the purchase of cheaper, energy-dense foods, and indirectly, by producing psychosocial stress that
affects parenting.70 The higher prevalence of
obesity among adults in minority and lowincome populations may also affect children’s
weight status.71 Maternal obesity and diabetes, both relatively more common among
minority women, may predispose children to
obesity.72 In addition, obesity among parents
may affect both the weight norms their children develop and the modeling of eating behaviors and physical activity they observe.
In what follows, we focus on three aspects of
the home environment—breast-feeding, television viewing, and parental attitudes and
behaviors. Each may be of particular importance for the development of obesity in ethnic minority and low-income children and
may be amenable to change through targeted
interventions.
Breast-feeding. Although breast-feeding rates
for all groups have increased notably in recent
years, disadvantaged minority groups still have
lower rates than others.73 As of 2001, the
rates of breast-feeding for African American
infants were 53 percent in-hospital and 22
percent at age six months. For Hispanics, the
Schools with the best healthprotective environments
turned out to be elementary
schools, public schools, and
larger schools.
rates were 73 percent in-hospital and 33 percent at six months, whereas for whites, the
rates were 72 percent in-hospital and 34 percent at six months.74 High rates of teen pregnancy may contribute to lower breast-feeding
rates, early introduction of solid foods, and
early feeding of high-sugar foods for African
American infants.75 In another article in this
volume Ana Lindsay and several colleagues
note that the evidence on whether children
who are breast-fed longer are less likely to become obese is inconclusive. Instead, mothers
who choose to breast-feed may be more likely
to adopt other behaviors that reduce the
chance of obesity. Nonetheless, the link between longer breast-feeding and a lower risk
of obesity, combined with the other well-documented benefits of breast-feeding, argues
for efforts to increase breast-feeding among
ethnic minority families.
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havior, increasing snacking while watching
TV, and exposing children to advertisements
for unhealthful foods and beverages.76 The
Institute of Medicine has recommended that
parents restrict their children’s television
watching to fewer than two hours a day.77
Television’s pervasive role in the lives of minority and low-income children, however,
High rates of teen pregnancy
may contribute to lower
breast-feeding rates, early
introduction of solid foods,
and early feeding of highsugar foods for African
American infants.
may make it hard for parents to turn off the
TV. As noted, ethnic minority and lowincome children have, as a group, high average levels of television viewing. African
American households that can afford them
are more likely than others to have premium
channels and to have three or more TV sets.78
Interestingly, the lower their parents’ education, the higher the likelihood that a child will
have a VCR or DVD in the bedroom. African
American children are also more likely than
whites to report having televisions in their
bedrooms, along with DVDs, cable and satellite connections, premium channels, and
video game consoles. Youth from the lowest
income group are the most likely to have
their own television sets. Watching television
during meals is also more common in families
with lower parental education, or lower income, as well as among Hispanics and
African Americans. The National Heart,
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Lung, and Blood Institute Growth and
Health Study found that eating while watching TV was more common among African
American girls. This practice is also linked
with reported higher caloric intake.79
Developing interventions, possibly school- or
child care center–based, to help low-income
and minority parents reduce their children’s
TV time is important. Such interventions
could also teach parents to help their children learn to evaluate critically the advertisements and programs they see at home.
Parental attitudes and behaviors. Efforts
to get parents to pay closer attention to their
children’s weight and BMI can be controversial, because some parents can become
overly restrictive about their children’s food
intake. Addressing childhood obesity issues
with parents in minority and lower-income
communities requires particular sensitivity
to differences in attitudes about weight that
may be the products of culture or economic
insecurity.
Societal attitudes about weight may be
changing as more and more adults become
overweight and obese. But in communities
where most women or adults are obese, as in
many ethnic minority and low-income communities, attitudes, norms, behaviors, and
cultural influences may be in equilibrium
with a high level of obesity. There may be a
mixture of positive and negative attitudes
about being overweight, especially where
people who are thin are thought to be sick,
addicted to drugs, too poor to have enough to
eat, or to risk “wasting away” in the case of
food shortage or of serious illness.80 In such
environments, parents and other family
members may consider being overweight as
normal, perhaps determined by heredity.
Shapeliness, robustness, and nurturing quali-
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ties may be standards of female attractiveness
that encourage the overall acceptance of people who—by BMI standards—are otherwise
considered overweight or obese. One study
found that African American girls were more
likely than white girls to try to gain weight,
largely because their parents told them they
were too thin.81
Several child feeding attitudes or practices
that are theoretically associated with obesity
development are common among lowincome mothers. Among them are heightened concerns about a child being hungry;
greater difficulty withholding food from a
child, even one who has just eaten; and concern about underweight even if a child is
above normal weight.82 Focus groups have
found that low-income parents may see their
overweight or obese children as “thick or
solid.” And other family members might
challenge parents if they try to control their
child’s diet.83 The view that “a fat child is a
healthy child” or that children’s weight follows a natural trajectory where heavy children will “grow out of it” may be more common among families that are food insecure or
where hunger concerns are part of a group’s
identity.
In spite of such cultural differences, programs to motivate and educate low-income
parents and caregivers in diverse ethnic minority populations about how to promote
healthful eating and physical activity in their
children, combined with programs for the
children themselves, have yielded promising
results.84 Childhood obesity-prevention programs should also work with parents on their
own weight issues. By promoting an understanding of the core principles of energy balance and by helping parents model the targeted nutrition and physical activity
behaviors for their children, such programs
could lead to favorable changes at home.
Given the challenges of parenting in low-income communities, these programs should
lessen rather than increase the stresses on
parents by helping them and their children in
ways that go beyond eating and physical activity. For example, after-school programs
could include tutoring and time to do homework in addition to providing healthful
snacks, dance, and active play.85 Working
with girls and their mothers together—counseling mothers about weight control and having them interact with their daughters—may
be particularly effective for African American
preadolescent or adolescent girls.86 The ideal
program simultaneously addresses many issues, including empowerment strategies, in
the community, school, and home.
Conclusions and Implications
Any strategy to address childhood obesity in
the overall population must include targeted
interventions for children in the nation’s minority and low-income families. Preventing
child obesity in ethnic minority and lowincome populations requires thinking
through all the issues that apply to the population at large and then considering how
these issues might differ in a population with
different socio-cultural characteristics and
usually less favorable health profiles, environmental circumstances, and life chances.
To date, the research on childhood obesity that
is specifically focused on ethnic minority and
low-income populations is limited. But the
available evidence clearly shows that the
higher rates of obesity in minority and lowincome communities are associated with a
plethora of unfavorable influences—economic
stresses, reduced access to affordable healthful
foods and opportunities for physical activity,
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lated to family ecologies. Simply counseling
parents and children about weight control will
be almost pointless in environments that work
against carrying out recommendations for
healthful eating and physical activity. To identify environmental changes that will most likely
reduce childhood obesity in minority and lowincome communities requires more investigation. Researchers also should focus on how
culturally influenced attitudes and practices
interact with environmental variables.
Although reducing obesity prevalence among
minority and low-income children will not be
possible without also improving their social
and economic environments, clearly tremendous opportunities exist for targeted policies
and interventions. In particular, policymakers
can reinforce current programs that foster
nutritional equity—food stamps, school and
child care center feeding programs, and the
supplemental WIC program—by adding a
specific component on childhood obesity.
They may also strengthen both routine and
specialized health care services for obesity
treatment and prevention for low-income
and minority children through improvements
in Medicaid, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, and services delivered in
federally qualified and locally supported
community health centers.87 Such reforms,
however, will almost certainly require a significant financial commitment.
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Policies must also improve access to healthful
foods and physical activity in low-income and
minority communities. Families need more
protection from the “invisible hand of the
free market” as the primary determinant of
affordable, accessible, and healthful food options. Food availability, access, and the
closely related media and marketing issues
should be top policy priorities in schools,
families, and communities alike. The built
environment must offer children more options for physical activity. Researchers and
policymakers must face head-on the safety issues, such as violence and drug trafficking,
that compromise socially disadvantaged
inner-city neighborhoods. Because attention
to these issues is highly specific for any locality and influenced by local policies, a feasible
overall obesity-prevention strategy might address food-related and media-related initiatives at the national or regional level and built
environment issues at the local level.
Underlying all these conclusions is one main
message. Making serious progress in the fight
against childhood obesity in minority and
low-income communities will depend on our
national will to radically alter the negative effects of the social and physical environments
in which these communities exist.
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Notes
1. In this article, “obesity” refers to children up to age eighteen whose body mass index (BMI, calculated as
weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters) is at or above the 95th percentile of the appropriate age- and gender-specific BMI reference curve. Children with BMI values at or above the 85th
percentile are classified as being “overweight.” Note that this terminology differs from that used by the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which refers to children with BMI values at or above the 95th
percentile as “overweight” and those with BMI values at or above the 85th percentile as “at risk for overweight.”
2. Minority status is assigned to a set of diverse populations and subpopulations that fit the “non-white” U.S.
Census Bureau’s racial and ethnic classifications. The major minority group categories are African American, Hispanic or Latino, American Indian and Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, Asian American, and Pacific
Islander. These broad groupings mask substantial heterogeneity within groups. For example, the group
“Hispanic or Latino” may include individuals of any race and includes U.S.-born and immigrant populations from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central and South America, and Spain. American Indians and
Alaska Natives include hundreds of different federally recognized groups. Asian Americans come from all
parts of Asia and are often classified together with Pacific Islanders, which can be misleading. Obesity rates
may vary substantially across these subgroups.
3. G. Baruffi and others, “Ethnic Differences in the Prevalence of Overweight among Young Children in
Hawaii,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 104, no. 11 (2004): 1701–07.
4. E. Zephier, J. H. Himes, and M. Story, “Prevalence of Overweight and Obesity in American Indian School
Children and Adolescents in the Aberdeen Area: A Population Study,” International Journal of Obesity and
Related Metabolic Disorders 23, suppl. 2 (1999): S28–30.
5. B. Caballero and others, “Pathways: A School-Based, Randomized Controlled Trial for the Prevention of
Obesity in American Indian Schoolchildren,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 78, no. 5 (2003):
1030–38.
6. J. C. Eisenmann and others, “Growth and Overweight of Navajo Youth: Secular Changes from 1955 to
1997,” International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders 24, no. 2 (2000): 211–18.
7. L. E. Thorpe and others, “Childhood Obesity in New York City Elementary School Students,” American
Journal of Public Health 94, no. 9 (2004): 1496–1500.
8. P. Gordon-Larsen, L. S. Adair, and B. M. Popkin, “The Relationship of Ethnicity, Socioeconomic Factors,
and Overweight in U.S. Adolescents,” Obesity Research 11, no. 1 (2003): 121–29 (erratum in Obesity Research 11, no. 4 [2003]: 597).
9. World Health Organization Expert Consultation, “Appropriate Body-Mass Index for Asian Populations and
Its Implications for Policy and Intervention Strategies,” Lancet 363, no. 9403 (2004): 157–63 (erratum in
Lancet 363, no. 9412 [2004]: 902); M. J. McNeely and E. J. Boyko, “Type 2 Diabetes Prevalence in Asian
Americans: Results of a National Health Survey,” Diabetes Care 27, no. 1 (2004): 66–69.
10. B. Sherry and others, “Trends in State-Specific Prevalence of Overweight and Underweight in 2- through
4-Year-Old Children from Low-Income Families from 1989 through 2000,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 158, no. 12 (2004): 1116–24; Baruffi and others, “Ethnic Differences in the Prevalence of
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Overweight among Young Children in Hawaii” (see note 3); N. Stettler and others, “High Prevalence of
Overweight among Pediatric Users of Community Health Centers,” Pediatrics 116, no 3 (2005): e381–88.
11. R. P. Troiano and others, “Overweight Prevalence and Trends for Children and Adolescents: The National
Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, 1963 to 1991,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 149,
no. 10 (1995): 1085–91; and Bing-Hwan Lin, “Nutrition and Health Characteristics of Low-Income Populations: Body Weight Status,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Agriculture Information Bulletin 796-3, February 2005. See also Patricia Anderson and Kristin Butcher’s article in this volume.
12. See Patricia Anderson and Kristin Butcher’s article in this volume.
13. R. S. Strauss and H. A. Pollack, “Epidemic Increase in Childhood Overweight, 1986–1998,” Journal of the
American Medical Association 286, no. 22 (2001): 2845–88.
14. R. P. Troiano and K. M. Flegal, “Overweight Children and Adolescents: Description, Epidemiology, and
Demographics,” Pediatrics 101, no. 3, pt. 2 (1998): 497–504; Gordon-Larsen, Adair, and Popkin, “The Relationship of Ethnicity, Socioeconomic Factors, and Overweight” (see note 8); S. Y. Kimm, and others,
“Race, Socioeconomic Status, and Obesity in 9- to 10-Year-Old Girls: The NHLBI Growth and Health
Study,” Annals of Epidemiology 6, no. 4 (1996): 266–75.
15. Troiano and Flegal, “Overweight Children and Adolescents” (note 14).
16. Gordon-Larsen, Adair, and Popkin, “The Relationship of Ethnicity, Socioeconomic Factors, and Overweight” (see note 8).
17. S. Y. Kimm and others, “Race” (see note 14).
18. R. C. Whitaker and others, “Predicting Obesity in Young Adulthood from Childhood and Parental Obesity,” New England Journal of Medicine 337 (1997): 869–73.
19. See Stephen Daniels’s article in this volume.
20. A. Fagot-Campagna, “Emergence of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus in Children: Epidemiological Evidence,”
Journal of Pediatric Endocrinology and Metabolism 3, suppl. 6 (2000): 1395–402; J. E. Oeltmann and others, “Prevalence of Diagnosed Diabetes among African-American and Non-Hispanic White Youth, 1999,”
Diabetes Care 26, no. 9 (2003): 2531–35.
21. Although there is as yet no accepted definition of metabolic syndrome in adolescents, its prevalence among
U.S. twelve- to nineteen-year-olds, when defined by a combination of abdominal obesity and elevated cardiovascular risk factors, adapted from the definition in adults, is strongly associated with weight status.
Prevalence jumps from 0.1 in youths below the 85th BMI percentile to 6.8 percent in youths between the
85th and 95th BMI percentiles and to 28.7 percent in those above the 95th percentile. See S. Cook and
others, “Prevalence of a Metabolic Syndrome Phenotype in Adolescents: Findings from the Third National
Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1988–1994,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine
157, no. 8 (2003): 821–27.
22. Cook and others, “Prevalence of a Metabolic Syndrome Phenotype” (see note 21).
23. C. Hanevold and others, “The Effects of Obesity, Gender, and Ethnic Group on Left Ventricular Hypertrophy and Geometry in Hypertensive Children: A Collaborative Study of the International Pediatric Hypertension Association,” Pediatrics 113, no. 2 (2004): 328–33 (erratum in Pediatrics 115, no. 4 [2005]: 1118).
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24. S. Redline and others, “Risk Factors for Sleep-Disordered Breathing in Children: Associations with Obesity, Race, and Respiratory Problems,” American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine 159,
no. 5, pt. 1 (1999): 1527–32.
25. D. F. Roberts, U. G. Foehr, and V. J. Rideout, Kids and Media at the New Millennium (Menlo Park, Calif.:
Kaiser Family Foundation, 1999); E. H. Woodard IV and N. Gridina, Media in the Home, 2000: The Fifth
Annual Survey of Parents and Children (Philadelphia, Pa.: Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, 2000); D. F. Roberts and others, Kids and Media in America (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 2004).
26. Roberts and others, Kids and Media in America (see note 25).
27. Roberts and others, Kids and Media at the New Millennium (see note 25).
28. L. F. Alwitt and T. D. Donley, The Low-Income Consumer: Adjusting the Balance of Exchange (Thousand
Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1996).
29. D. L. G. Borzekowski and T. N. Robinson, “The 30-Second Effect: An Experiment Revealing the Impact of
Television Commercials on Food Preferences of Preschoolers,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 101 (2001): 42–46.
30. D. L. G. Borzekowski and A. F. Poussaint, Latino American Preschoolers and the Media (Washington: Annenberg Public Policy Center, 1998).
31. G. Gorn and M. E. Goldberg, “Behavioral Evidence on the Effects of Televised Food Messages on Children,” Journal of Consumer Research: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 9, no. 2 (1982): 200–05.
32. G. Hastings and others, Review of Research on the Effects of Food Promotion to Children Final Report Prepared for the Food Standards Agency, Centre for Social Marketing, University of Strathclyde, September
22, 2003.
33. S. A. Grier and A. M. Brumbaugh, “Noticing Cultural Differences: Ad Meanings Created by Target and
Non-Target Markets,” Journal of Advertising (Spring 1999): 79–93; J. L. Aaker, A. M. Brumbaugh, and S.
A. Grier, “Nontarget Markets and Viewer Distinctiveness: The Impact of Target Marketing on Advertising,” Journal of Consumer Psychology 9 (2000): 127–40; S. A. Grier and A. M. Brumbaugh, “Consumer
Distinctiveness and Advertising Persuasion,” in Diversity in Advertising, edited by Jerome D. Williams,
Wei-Na Lee, and Curtis P. Haugtvedt (Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 2004).
34. O. Appiah, “Black, White, Hispanic, and Asian American Adolescents’ Responses to Culturally Embedded
Ads,” Howard Journal of Communications 12, no. 1 (2001): 29–48; O. Appiah, “Ethnic Identification on
Adolescents’ Evaluations of Advertisements,” Journal of Advertising Research, September–October
(2001): 7–22; O. Appiah, “It Must Be the Cues: Racial Differences in Adolescents’ Responses to Culturally
Embedded Ads,” in Diversity in Advertising, edited by Williams, Lee, and Haugtvedt (see note 33).
35. M. A. Tirodkar and A. Jain, “Food Messages on African American Television Shows,” American Journal of
Public Health 93, no. 3 (2003): 439–41; V. R. Henderson and B. Kelly, “Food Advertising in the Age of
Obesity: Content Analysis of Food Advertising on General Market and African American Television,” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 37, no. 4 (2005): 191–96.
36. D. B. Jeffrey, R. W. McLellarn, and D. T. Fox, “The Development of Children’s Eating Habits: The Role of
Television Commercials,” Health Education Quarterly 9, no. 2–3 (1982): 174–89.
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37. C. A. Pratt and C. B. Pratt, “Comparative Content Analysis of Food and Nutrition Advertisements in Ebony,
Essence, and Ladies’ Home Journal,” Journal of Nutrition Education 27, no. 1 (1995): 11–18; C. A. Pratt and
C. B. Pratt, “Nutrition Advertisements in Consumer Magazines: Health Implications for African Americans,” Journal of Black Studies 26, no. 4 (1996): 504–23; S. C. Duerksen and others, “Health Disparities and
Advertising Content of Women’s Magazines: A Cross-Sectional Study,” BMC Public Health 5 (2005): 85.
38. Alwitt and Donley, The Low-Income Consumer (see note 28).
39. G. P. Sylvester and others, “Food and Nutrition Messages in Film,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 699 (1993): 294–95; Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout, Kids and Media at the New Millennium (see note 25).
40. J. Michael McGinnis, Jennifer A. Grootman, and Vivica I. Kraak, Food Marketing to Children and Youth:
Threat or Opportunity? (Washington: National Academies Press, 2006).
41. A. Silverblatt, Media Literacy: Keys to Interpreting Media Messages (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1995).
42. K. Morland and others, “Neighborhood Characteristics Associated with the Location of Food Stores and
Food Service Places,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 22, no. 1 (2002): 23–29; Philadelphia Food
Trust, “Food for Every Child: The Need for More Supermarkets in Philadelphia,” 2005 (www.thefoodtrust.org/pdf/supermar.pdf) [November 28, 2005]); C. R. Horowitz and others, “Barriers to Buying
Healthy Foods for People with Diabetes: Evidence of Environmental Disparities,” American Journal of
Public Health 94, no. 9 (2004): 1549–54; S. N. Zenk and others, “Fruit and Vegetable Intake in AfricanAmericans: Income and Store Characteristics,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 29, no. 1 (2005):
1–9; D. D. Sloane and others, REACH Coalition of the African American Building a Legacy of Health Project, “Improving the Nutritional Resource Environment for Healthy Living through Community-Based
Participatory Research,” Journal of General Internal Medicine 18, no. 7 (2003): 568–75; Rodolpho M.
Nayga Jr. and Zy Weinberg, “Supermarket Access in the Inner Cities,” Journal of Retailing and Consumer
Services 6 (1999): 141–45.
43. K. Morland, S. Wing, and A. Diez-Roux, “The Contextual Effect of the Local Food Environment on Residents’ Diets: The Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study,” American Journal of Public Health 92, no.
11 (2002): 1761–67.
44. Horowitz and others, “Barriers to Buying Healthy Foods for People with Diabetes” (see note 42).
45. H. Wechsler and others, “The Availability of Low-Fat Milk in an Inner-City Latino Community: Implications for Nutrition Education,” American Journal of Public Health 85, no. 12 (1995): 1690–92.
46. R. Sturm and A. Datar, “Body Mass Index in Elementary School Children, Metropolitan Area Food Prices
and Food Outlet Density,” Public Health 119, no. 12 (2005): 1059–68.
47. S. Shankar and A. Klassen, “Influences on Fruit and Vegetable Procurement and Consumption among
Urban African-American Public Housing Residents, and Potential Strategies for Intervention,” Family
Economics and Nutrition Review 13, no. 2 (2001): 34–46.
48. M. A. Pereira and others, “Fast-Food Habits, Weight Gain, and Insulin Resistance (The CARDIA Study):
15-Year Prospective Analysis,” Lancet 365, no. 9453 (2005): 36–42.
49. J. P. Block and others, “Fast Food, Race/Ethnicity and Income,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine
27, no. 3 (2004): 211–17.
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50. L. B. Lewis and others, “African Americans’ Access to Healthy Food Options in South Los Angeles Restaurants,” American Journal of Public Health 95, no. 4 (2005): 668–73.
51. S. J. Jones, “The Measurement of Food Security at the Community Level: Geographic Information Systems and Participatory Ethnographic Methods.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel
Hill, 2002.
52. G. X. Ayala and others, “Restaurant and Food Shopping Selections among Latino Women in Southern California,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 105, no. 1 (2005): 38–45.
53. A. M. Prentice and S. A. Jebb, “Fast Foods, Energy Density, and Obesity: A Possible Mechanistic Link,”
Obesity Review 4, no. 4 (2003): 187–94; B. H. Lin, J. Guthrie, and E. Frazao, “Quality of Children’s Diets
at and Away from Home, 1994–96,” Food Review 22, no. 1 (1999): 2–10.
54. J. A. Satia, J. A. Galanko, and A. M. Siega-Riz, “Eating at Fast-Food Restaurants Is Associated with Dietary
Intake, Demographic, Psychosocial, and Behavioral Factors among African Americans in North Carolina,”
Public Health and Nutrition 7, no. 3 (2004): 369–80.
55. Pereira and others, “Fast-Food Habits, Weight Gain, and Insulin Resistance” (see note 47).
56. H. L. Burdette and R. C. Whitaker, “Neighborhood Playgrounds, Fast-Food Restaurants, and Crime: Relationships to Overweight in Low-Income Preschool Children,” Preventive Medicine 38, no. 1 (2004):
57–63; S. A. French and others, “Fast-Food Restaurant Use among Adolescents: Associations with Nutrient Intake, Food Choices, and Behavioral and Psychosocial Variables,” International Journal of Obesity
and Related Metabolic Disorders 25, no. 12 (2001): 1823–33.
57. See the article by James Sallis and Karen Glanz in this volume.
58. C. M. Hoehner and others, “Perceived and Objective Environmental Measures and Physical Activity
among Urban Adults,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 28, 2 suppl. 2 (2005): 105–16.
59. L. M. Powell, S. Slater, and F. J. Chaloupka, “The Relationship between Community Physical Activity Settings and Race, Ethnicity, and Socioeconomic Status,” Evidence-Based Preventive Medicine 1, no. 2 (2004):
135–44.
60. Burdette and Whitaker, “Neighborhood Playgrounds, Fast-Food Restaurants, and Crime” (see note 55); H.
L. Burdette and R. C. Whitaker, “A National Study of Neighborhood Safety, Outdoor Play, Television Viewing, and Obesity in Preschool Children,” Pediatrics 116, no. 3 (2005): 657–62; A. J. Romero and others,
“Are Perceived Neighborhood Hazards a Barrier to Physical Activity in Children?” Archives of Pediatric
and Adolescent Medicine 155, no. 10 (2001): 1143–48.
61. J. Koplan, C. Liverman, and V. Kraak, eds., Preventing Childhood Obesity: Health in the Balance (Washington: National Academies Press, 2005).
62. General Accounting Office, Health, Education, and Human Services Division, “School Facilities: America’s
Schools Report Differing Conditions,” GAO/HEHS-96-103 (Washington, June 14, 1996).
63. S. E. Jones, N. D. Brener, and T. McManus, “Prevalence of School Policies, Programs, and Facilities That
Promote a Healthy Physical School Environment,” American Journal of Public Health 93, no. 9 (2003):
1570–75.
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64. J. Wirt and others, The Condition of Education 2004 (NCES 2004-077). Indicator 5: Concentration of Enrollment by Race/Ethnicity and Poverty (Washington: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for
Education Statistics, 2004) (www.nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/list/index.asp [accessed Dec. 27, 2005]).
65. See Mary Story, Karen M. Kaphingst, and Simone French’s article entitled “The Role of Schools in Obesity
Prevention” in this volume.
66. U.S. Government Accountability Office, “School Meal Programs: Competitive Foods Are Widely Available
and Generate Substantial Revenues for Schools,” Report no. GAO-05-563 (August 2005).
67. S. A. French and others, “Pricing Strategy to Promote Fruit and Vegetable Purchase in High School Cafeterias,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 97, no. 9 (1997): 1008–10.
68. S. A. French and H. Wechsler, “School-Based Research and Initiatives: Fruit and Vegetable Environment,
Policy, and Pricing Workshop,” Preventive Medicine 39, suppl. 2 (2004): S101–07.
69. Dennis P. Andrulis, “Moving beyond the Status Quo in Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Children’s Health,” Public Health Reports 120 (2005): 370–77.
70. M. S. Townsend and others, “Food Insecurity Is Positively Related to Overweight in Women,” Journal of
Nutrition 131 (2001): 1738–45; A. Drewnowski and N. Darmon, “The Economics of Obesity: Dietary Energy Density and Energy Cost,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 82, 1 suppl. (2005): S265–73; V. C.
McLoyd, “The Impact of Economic Hardship on Black Families and Children: Psychological Distress, Parenting, and Socioemotional Development,” Child Development 61, no. 2 (1990): 311–46.
71. A. A. Hedley and others, “Prevalence of Overweight and Obesity among U.S. Children, Adolescents, and
Adults, 1999–2002,” Journal of the American Medical Association 291, no. 23 (2004): 2847–50; J. W. Lucas,
J. S. Schiller, and V. Benson, “Summary Health Statistics for U.S. Adults: National Health Interview Survey,
2001,” Vital Health Statistics 10, no. 218 (2004): 1–134.
72. T. J. Rosenberg and others, “Pre-Pregnancy Weight and Adverse Perinatal Outcomes in an Ethnically Diverse Population,” Obstetrics and Gynecology 102, no. 5, pt. 1 (2003): 1022–27; T. J. Rosenberg and others,
“Maternal Obesity and Diabetes as Risk Factors for Adverse Pregnancy Outcomes: Differences among
Four Racial/Ethnic Groups,” American Journal of Public Health 95, no. 9 (2005): 1545–51.
73. National Center for Health Statistics, Health, United States, 2004, with Chartbook on Trends in the Health
of Americans (Hyattsville, Md., 2004), table 18.
74. A. S. Ryan, Z. Wenjun, and A. Acosta, “Breastfeeding Continues to Increase into the New Millennium,” Pediatrics 110, no. 6 (2002): 1103–09.
75. M. Bentley and others, “Infant Feeding Practices of Low-Income, African-American, Adolescent Mothers:
An Ecological, Multigenerational Perspective,” Social Science and Medicine 49, no. 8 (1999): 1085–100.
76. See article by Ana Lindsay and her colleagues in this volume.
77. Koplan, Livermore, and Kraak, Preventing Childhood Obesity (see note 61).
78. D. F. Roberts, U. G. Foehr, and V. Rideout, Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8–18 Year Olds (Menlo
Park, Calif.: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2005); Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout, Kids and Media at the New
Millennium (see note 25).
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79. S. W. McNutt and others, “A Longitudinal Study of the Dietary Practices of Black and White Girls 9 and 10
Years Old at Enrollment: The NHLBI Growth and Health Study,” Journal of Adolescent Health 20, no. 1
(1997): 27–37.
80. A. Jain and others, “Why Don’t Low-Income Mothers Worry about Their Preschoolers Being Overweight?”
Pediatrics 107, no. 5 (2001): 1138–46.
81. G. B. Schreiber and others, “Weight Modification Efforts Reported by Black and White Preadolescent Girls:
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Growth and Health Study,” Pediatrics 98, no. 1 (1996): 63–70.
82. A. E. Baughcum and others, “Maternal Feeding Practices and Beliefs and Their Relationships to Overweight in Early Childhood,” Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics 22, no. 6 (2001): 391–408.
83. Jain and others, “Why Don’t Low-Income Mothers Worry?” (see note 80).
84. T. A. Wadden and others, “Obesity in Black Adolescent Girls: A Controlled Clinical Trial of Treatment by
Diet, Behavior Modification, and Parental Support,” Pediatrics 85, no. 3 (1990): 345–52; B. M. Beech and
others, “Child- and Parent-Targeted Interventions: The Memphis GEMS Pilot Study,” Ethnicity and Disease 13, no. 1, suppl. 1 (2003): S40–53; T. N. Robinson and others, “Dance and Reducing Television Viewing to Prevent Weight Gain in African-American Girls: The Stanford GEMS Pilot Study,” Ethnicity and
Disease 13, no. 1, suppl. 1 (2003): S65–77; M. L. Fitzgibbon and others, “Two-Year Follow-Up Results for
Hip-Hop to Health Jr.: A Randomized Controlled Trial for Overweight Prevention in Preschool Minority
Children,” Journal of Pediatrics 146, no. 5 (2005): 618–25.
85. Robinson and others, “Dance and Reducing Television Viewing” (see note 84).
86. Wadden and others, “Obesity in Black Adolescent Girls” (see note 84); Beech and others, “Child- and Parent-Targeted Interventions” (see note 84).
87. Stettler and others, “High Prevalence of Overweight among Pediatric Users” (see note 10).
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Treating Child Obesity and
Associated Medical Conditions
Sonia Caprio
Summary
With American children on course to grow into the most obese generation of adults in history,
Sonia Caprio argues that it is critical to develop more effective strategies for preventing childhood obesity and treating serious obesity-related health complications. She notes that although
pediatricians are concerned about the obesity problem, most are ineffective in addressing it.
Treatment should begin, Caprio explains, with a thorough medical exam, an assessment of nutrition and physical activity, an appraisal of the degree of obesity and associated health complications, a family history, and full information about current medications. Caprio also summarizes the current use of medications and surgery in treating child obesity and argues that for
severe forms of obesity, the future lies in developing new and more effective drugs.
Caprio explains that today’s most effective obesity treatment programs have been carried out in
academic centers through an approach that combines a dietary component, behavioral modification, physical activity, and parental involvement. Such programs, however, have yet to be
translated to primary pediatric care centers. Successfully treating obesity, she argues, will require a major shift in pediatric care that builds on the findings of these academic centers regarding structured intervention programs.
To ensure that pediatricians are well trained in implementing such programs, the American
Medical Association is working with federal agencies, medical specialty societies, and public
health organizations to teach doctors how to prevent and manage obesity in both children and
adults. Such training should be a part of undergraduate and graduate medical education and of
continuing medical education programs.
Caprio also addresses the problem of reimbursement for obesity treatment. Despite the health
risks of obesity, patients get little support from health insurers, thus putting long-term weightmanagement programs beyond the reach of most. Caprio argues that obesity should be recognized as a disease and receive coverage for its treatment just as other diseases do.
www.futureofchildren.org
Sonia Caprio, M.D., is a professor of pediatric endocrinology at the Yale University School of Medicine.
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Sonia Caprio
S
ince the mid-1980s prevalence
rates of childhood and adolescent
obesity in the United States have
more than doubled.1 American
children are on course to grow into
the most obese generation of adults in history. The worsening obesity epidemic makes
it critical to continue examining and developing new and more effective treatment strategies. And because many obese youngsters
suffer obesity-associated metabolic, orthopedic, and other health complications that tend
to increase with the severity of obesity, it is
essential not only to identify the obese child
but to recognize, treat, and monitor the associated obesity-related diseases.2
Although pediatricians are concerned about
the problem of obesity, most feel unprepared, ill equipped, and ineffective in addressing it. Many studies, as well as a survey
of pediatricians, dietitians, and pediatric
nurse practitioners, confirm that pediatricians do indeed face many challenges in
treating childhood obesity.3 Most pediatric
primary care providers are not trained to provide the extensive counseling on nutrition,
exercise, and lifestyle changes that is required to treat obesity, and most are pessimistic that treatment can be successful.
Most also have insufficient time and attention to dedicate to the obese child, a problem
compounded by the lack of reimbursement
by third-party payers. Pediatricians also lack
support services, especially access to mental
health professionals, nutritionists, or exercise
physiologists. And they are frustrated by insufficient patient motivation and a lack of
parental concern.4 In a study of obese
African American children, many parents
neither perceived their children as very overweight nor felt that weight was a health problem for their child.5 Although comparable
data are not available for white children, this
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study suggests that many African American
parents do not perceive obesity as a pediatric
health concern.
Given the magnitude of the childhood obesity problem, however, pediatricians and
other health care providers are going to have
to step up and take a major role in the care
and health of the obese child. Successfully
treating obesity will require a major shift in
pediatric care.
The Role Pediatricians Should
Take in Treating Obesity
In 1998 the Maternal and Child Health Bureau, an agency of the U.S. Department of
Health and Human Services, convened a committee of pediatric experts to develop recommendations to guide physicians, nurse practitioners, and nutritionists in evaluating and
treating overweight children and adolescents.6
A group of pediatricians, nurse practitioners,
and nutritionists reviewed the recommendations and approved their appropriateness for
practitioners. Although the document is not
entirely evidence-based, it represents the consensus from experts in pediatric obesity and is
the gold standard of care for all practitioners
evaluating and treating the obese child.
Evaluating the obese child should begin with
a detailed medical examination, together
with an assessment of nutrition, physical activity, and behaviors that are linked to obesity,
followed by an appraisal of the degree of obesity and its associated metabolic complications. The goals of the medical exam are to
identify and treat diseases associated with
childhood obesity, to rule out possible underlying causes of obesity, and to assess the
child’s readiness for change. The focus
should be on the child’s entire family and any
other caregivers or role models living at
home.7 The examination should include a
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family history of parental obesity, gestational
diabetes, dyslipidemia (abnormal levels of fat
in the blood), and cardiovascular disease, as
well as type 2 diabetes.8 It should also gather
information about any medication the child
uses, because so many common medicines,
such as glucocorticoids and antipsychotic
medications, influence weight.9 A nutritional
history should include the quality and portion
size of the meals, when and where the child
eats, and levels of satiety and fullness following a meal. It should also record the amount
and quality of snacks and daily consumption
of juice and soft drinks, which often replace
milk in children’s and adolescents’ diets and
are a major contributing factor to high calorie
intake.10 Finally, it should inquire how often
the child eats “fast food,” because children
who frequently eat at fast-food restaurants
consume more total energy, more energy per
gram of food, more total fat and carbohydrates, more added sugars, less fiber, and
fewer fruits and vegetables than children who
do not.11
The child’s activity level should also be assessed. Studies that use motion sensors show
that children who spend less time in moderate activity are at a higher risk than their
more active counterparts of becoming obese
during childhood and adolescence.12 Television watching and video games contribute to
more sedentary leisure activities as well as to
increased snacking and inappropriate food
choices prompted by television advertising.
Many hours of television viewing are positively correlated with overweight, especially
in older children and adolescents.13
Overweight in both children and adolescents
can profoundly affect quality of life, selfesteem, and social competence.14 Among severely obese adolescents, 48 percent have
moderate to severe depressive symptoms.
Overweight adolescents often engage in significantly more unhealthy behaviors and experience more psychosocial distress than
their normal weight peers.15 Because psychological disorders may cause or be related to
obesity, it is important for a pediatrician to
recognize them and to be able to refer a child
to a therapist as needed.
Assessment of Obesity:
The Body Mass Index
The initial assessment should begin with an
accurate measure of height and weight, which
is used to calculate, record, and plot the
child’s age- and gender-specific body mass
index (BMI) on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2000 BMI charts.16 BMI
in children provides a consistent measure of
obesity across age groups, correlating with
measures of body fatness in children and adolescents. Although some controversy attends
the use of BMI to assess obesity in children,
as detailed in the article in this volume by Patricia Anderson and Kristen Butcher, the International Task Force on Obesity finds BMI
a reasonable index of adiposity.17
Early recognition of excessive weight gain
relative to normal growth is an essential component of the physical examination and
should be part of any visit in primary health
care. In 2003, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that pediatricians calculate and plot BMI in all children and adolescents.18 Most health care providers,
however, fail to address it in the pediatric
population. A 2002 study of pediatricians, pediatric nurse practitioners, and dietitians
showed that fewer than 20 percent of pediatricians assessed body mass index.19 And two
recent studies indicate that screening practices for overweight using BMI during routine visits have not been adopted.20 Many pediatricians, it seems clear, are overlooking
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Racial Disparities in the Care of Childhood Obesity
African American and Hispanic children and adolescents have higher prevalence rates of obesity
than do white children and adolescents, but they receive less care.1 The disparity is particularly
disconcerting because black and Hispanic children are at greater risk for obesity-associated complications, such as type 2 diabetes, than are white children.2
In a national survey of ambulatory pediatric visits, Stephen Cook and several colleagues report
disturbing racial and health-related disparities. Blood pressure screening differed by race and insurance status, with 47.7 percent of visits of white children including such screening as against
29 percent of visits of black children. Diet and exercise counseling also varied by age, insurance
type, and clinician type. Exercise counseling occurred half as often in visits by black children.3 A
recent report by Karen Dorsey and several colleagues on the diagnosis, evaluation, and treatment
of childhood obesity in pediatric practice also found large disparities in treatment.4 In their study
of four pediatric clinics (two community health centers and two hospital-based clinics) in New
Haven that are serving an urban population with many racial and ethnic minorities insured by
Medicaid, they report that providers may be under-diagnosing girls, children who are Hispanic,
those insured through Medicaid, and those living apart from their biological parents. The authors
also document a lack of testing for diabetes or lipid disorders among this at-risk population of
children. Efforts should be invested to understand and correct these racial disparities.
Health professionals of different ethnic backgrounds should develop and implement ethnicitybased management programs for children and adolescents with diverse ethnic, racial, and cultural
backgrounds. The United States has few black and Hispanic obesity specialists, nutritionists, and
exercise physiologists, and the enormous racial and ethnic gap in providers must be filled. Pediatricians must also address these health disparities in the community through other means, such as
working with the local news media. The state of Illinois has recently proposed three pieces of childhood obesity legislation that are likely to be enacted soon. The first urges the U.S. Department of
Agriculture to update nutritional labels for foods distributed through the Supplemental Nutrition
Program for Women and Children (WIC). The second requires each school board in the state to establish a school district office of nutrition to help prevent childhood obesity. The third urges the
state board of education to develop guidelines showing how schools can meet standards for saturated fat in school meals and provide healthy alternatives. Many other states are also working in
the same direction, and more legislation to prevent and treat childhood obesity is likely.
1. C. L. Ogden and K. M. Flegal, “Prevalence and Trends in Overweight among U.S. Children and Adolescents, 1999–2000,” Journal of the American Medical Association 288 (2002): 1728–32.
2. A. L. Rosenbloom and others, “Emerging Epidemic of Type 2 Diabetes in Youth,” Diabetes Care 22, no. 2 (1999): 345–54.
3. Stephen Cook and others, “Screening and Counseling Associated with Obesity Diagnosis in a National Survey of Ambulatory Pediatric Visits,” Pediatrics 116 (2005): 112–16.
4. Karen B. Dorsey and others, “Evaluation and Treatment of Childhood Obesity in Pediatric Practice,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 159 (2005): 632–38.
obesity during well child visits. Why such
screening practices have not been adopted is
unclear. In a recent report from the U.S. Preventive Task Force in the journal Pediatrics,
Evelyn Whitlock and several colleagues concluded that the existing evidence is insuffi212
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cient to recommend for or against routine
screening using the BMI for overweight in
children and adolescents in primary care settings.21 But the report should be interpreted
carefully: according to an article by Nancy
Krebs in the same journal, the report should
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not lead to complacency but rather serve as a
call for action.22 Despite the uncertainties
and controversy surrounding BMI’s use in
pediatrics, assessing children’s BMI and BMI
percentiles beginning at age two can prompt
health care providers to address weight-toheight ratios during well child visits and
should be part of the routine physical exam.
Assessment of Obesity-Related Diseases
To identify the obesity-related diseases that
are being seen increasingly in children, laboratory tests should include a fasting lipid profile, which measures cholesterol and triglyceride levels, a liver function test, and fasting
glucose and insulin levels.23 A consensus
panel of the American Diabetes Association
recommends that overweight children with
two additional risk factors, such as a family
history of type 2 diabetes, race or ethnicity
(American Indian, African American, Hispanic, or Asian Pacific), signs of insulin insensitivity, or hypertension, be considered for
further testing.24 Another consensus report
finds that patients with obesity-related diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension,
polycystic ovarian syndrome, dyslipidemia,
nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, and sleep
apnea, will require the expertise of the pediatric endocrinologist, cardiologist, gastroenterologist, and pulmonologist.25 These conditions are described in detail in the article by
Stephen Daniels in this volume. Children
with these conditions should be cared for
within specialized obesity clinics.
Current Specialized Treatment
Programs and Interventions
Surprisingly little evidence-based, highquality research exists on interventions to
treat childhood obesity. A summary of the research behind obesity interventions for both
adults and children was published in April
2004 in the British Medical Journal.26
Most of the effective treatment programs
have been carried out in academic centers
through an interdisciplinary approach that
combines a dietary component, behavioral
modification, physical activity, and parental
involvement.27 L. H. Epstein and his team at
the State University of New York at Buffalo
have been in the forefront of developing
programs that reduce adiposity in childhood
through this multidisciplinary approach. The
most important finding of these interventions
may be that relatively modest but sustainable
changes in lifestyles may have more longterm impact on obesity than radical regimens
that enable patients to lose weight rapidly but
not to maintain their new, lower weight
afterward. In perhaps the only successful
long-term intervention, Epstein used such
behavioral strategies as contracting, selfmonitoring, and social reinforcement with
obese children and their parents to limit consumption of fatty foods and to increase exercise.28 Although research has demonstrated
that intensive group programs can be successful, such programs have yet to be translated to primary care centers. In the absence
of well-established, office-based evaluation
and treatment programs, the Maternal and
Child Health Bureau and the National Center for Education in Maternal and Child
Health have issued recommendations for the
obese child’s evaluation and treatment that
are strongly based on comprehensive interventions like those Epstein developed.
Dietary Components of Treatment
Most lifestyle intervention programs in children use a diet that mildly restricts calories.
The classic example is the Traffic Light Diet,
which color-codes foods as green, yellow, and
red to signal whether they are safe to eat in
any quantity (green), require moderation and
caution (yellow), or should generally be
avoided (red). Combining comprehensive
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obesity-treatment programs with the Traffic
Light Diet can significantly change eating
patterns.29 Indeed, one study found that the
diet continued to affect the eating habits of
children five to ten years after treatment
began.30 Diets more restricted in calories, including high-protein diets, are used rarely
and only in more severe forms of obesity.
Given their potential danger, they should be
implemented under strict medical control,
possibly in a clinical setting.
Thus emerging data would
suggest that eliminating
carbonated drinks or other
sugary drinks from the diet
can significantly reduce
caloric intake and obesity.
Interest is also growing in whether lowcarbohydrate diets can help reduce adiposity
in adults.31 A recent study showed that obese
men and women lost more weight and had
more significant reductions in plasma triglyceride concentrations on a low-carbohydrate
diet than on conventional low-fat diets.32 And
limited evidence suggests that the nature or
quality of ingested carbohydrates may modulate weight gain in childhood. Although the
relationship between carbohydrates and
weight gain is still highly controversial, studies by D. Ludwig and several colleagues
strongly link consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks with obesity.33 Thus emerging
data would suggest that eliminating carbonated drinks or other sugary drinks from the
diet can significantly reduce caloric intake
and obesity.34 But low-carbohydrate diets
should not be used for children and adoles214
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cents until more information is available regarding their effects on insulin resistance and
their long-term effects on weight and metabolic health.
Role of Physical Exercise
Physical activity is a critical component of
obesity treatment in both adults and children. Increasing the caloric expenditure of
obese children may not only accelerate their
weight loss, but also make it easier to maintain weight changes. Exercise in the absence
of dietary intervention, however, has not
been found to affect weight significantly. And
for the obese child, exercising can be difficult. Few studies have explored the effects of
aerobic exercise on children’s body weight
and cardiovascular fitness. Nor is much information available regarding the effects of resistance exercise on children’s metabolism
and body weight. But because the capacity
for voluntary exercise declines with the increasing severity of obesity, resistance exercise may prove more effective than more
strenuous aerobic exercise. As yet there are
no evidence-based guidelines by which to design exercise programs for obese children.
Epstein and his team have suggested reducing sedentary behaviors as an alternative to
increasing physical activity, an interesting approach that may be helpful both in treating
and in preventing obesity. Inactivity can be
decreased in many ways, usually most successfully when a parent is involved. The best
example is reducing the time that the child
spends watching television.35
Pharmacologic Approaches in Pediatrics
Many experts in pediatric obesity argue that
behavioral treatment alone is ineffective, particularly in the case of severe obesity. Few if
any guidelines exist for using medications in
treating child obesity. In general, however,
experts suggest that children and adolescents
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with a BMI greater than the 95th percentile
for age and sex and with obesity-related medical complications that may be corrected or
improved through weight reduction should
be considered for intensive regimens, including medication.36 Most medications approved
for weight loss in the United States either
suppress appetite or reduce nutrient absorption. A third emerging therapy is not aimed
directly at controlling weight but rather targets insulin resistance to reduce the metabolic complications associated with obesity.
that sibutramine should be used for weight
loss in adolescents and children only on an
experimental basis until more extensive
safety and efficacy data are available.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
approved sibutramine (Meridia), an appetite
suppressant, for weight loss and maintenance
in conjunction with reduced caloric intake in
adults and adolescents older than age sixteen.37 R. I. Berkowitz and several colleagues
provided the first randomized, placebocontrolled trial of sibutramine in treating
obese adolescents.38 The double-blind study
followed eighty-two adolescents with a BMI
of 32 to 44 for six months, and then all patients received the drug without being blind
to the treatment for another six months. Including sibutramine as part of a comprehensive behavioral program resulted in greater
weight loss in obese adolescents than the traditional behavioral treatment alone, but the
weight loss plateaued after six months of
therapy. Serious side effects, such as hypertension and tachycardia (rapid heart rate),
were reported in nineteen out of forty-three
youngsters; in five, the drug dose had to be
reduced or discontinued. The study found no
major improvement in insulin resistance and
dyslipidemia. A. Matos-Godoy and several
colleagues also evaluated the efficacy and
safety of sibutramine in a six-month doubleblind, placebo-controlled trial in sixty obese
adolescents.39 Unlike the Berkowitz study, it
found no clinically significant changes in
blood pressure.40 Both studies concluded
Orlistat (Xenical), a drug that decreases nutrient absorption, cuts intestinal fat absorption by up to 30 percent. The FDA approved
its use in children older than age twelve. A
multicenter, one-year randomized, placebocontrolled trial in 539 obese adolescents
found that those who used orlistat lost weight
and had significantly greater reductions in
BMI and body fat than those given the
placebo.41 But the two groups saw no significant differences with respect to changes in
lipid or glucose levels. The explanation for
the failure of lipid and glucose levels to improve may be that the body weight loss was
small (5 percent). Although researchers do
not yet know how much BMI must be reduced to provide short- and long-term health
benefits in children and adolescents, the
above study would suggest that small changes
in weight do not affect the metabolic risk
factors.
In future tests of sibutramine in children and
adolescents with severe obesity, researchers
could experiment with different strategies.
For example, introducing the drug after a period of weight reduction with traditional approaches may reduce the potential for such
side effects as hypertension.
The third class of drugs used in treating obesity are those that target insulin resistance,
which, along with the associated high insulin
levels, are often present in obese children
and adolescents and which vary with the degree and severity of overweight. Both disorders may not only contribute to the metabolic
complications of obesity but also accentuate
weight gain in children and adolescents by
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promoting lipid storage. Thus targeting insulin resistance may have a dual effect—preventing further weight gain and improving
the associated metabolic complications. Metformin, for example, is used in treating type 2
diabetes.42 It is approved for adolescents.
Only two small studies have used metformin
in a randomized trial in obese adolescents.43
Both found small but statistically significant
effects on BMI and significant effects on fasting blood sugar, insulin, and lipids. The studies are encouraging and should be repeated
in a larger sample and for a longer duration.
When possible, it is always best to treat obesity without using drugs. Unfortunately,
however, once both adult and child patients
have lost weight, their efforts to maintain
their new weight often fail. That so many
people regain weight after stopping medication clearly suggests that obesity is a chronic
condition that requires continuous treatment. And even though environmental factors have played an important role in childhood obesity’s dramatic rise over the past
two decades, clearly there is a genetic component to body weight. Indeed, recent data
suggest that 5 percent of cases of severe obesity in children younger than ten are due to
genetic mutations.44 These children and adolescents need multiple strategies, including
drugs, used in combination in a carefully designed treatment program.
Research over the past decade has dramatically advanced knowledge about the molecular mechanisms regulating body fat and the
central regulation of energy intake. Ultimately, for the severe forms of obesity, the
future lies in developing new and more effective medications. Researchers should continue to investigate the causes of childhood
obesity and to refine obesity’s classifications
and diagnoses based on health risks.
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Surgical Approaches
Surgery is used to treat obesity in adults only
when patients are severely obese (or their
BMI greater than 40) or when they have a
BMI greater than 35 together with severe
obesity-related health complications. In the
Swedish Obese Subjects (SOS) Study, a large
study evaluating surgery’s efficacy, patients
were equally divided among surgical and nonsurgical groups.45 After two years, the surgical
patients had lost 28 kilograms (62 pounds);
those in the control group, 0.5 kilograms.
After eight years, the average weight loss was
20 kilograms in surgical patients and 0.7 kilograms in controls. Thus overall, surgery promoted substantial, prolonged weight loss in
patients with severe obesity.46 Results in the
relatively few published surgical trials in obese
children and adolescents seem to parallel
those of adult trials.47 Nevertheless, evidencebased guidelines should be developed for surgery as a treatment of childhood obesity.
Primary and Specialized Care
Chronically obese children are increasingly
being referred to pediatric endocrinology
centers, often years after the onset of obesity.
A study by T. Quattrin and several colleagues
found that most of the children who were referred to specialists had developed obesity in
their preschool years, when preventive measures are likely to be most effective, if implemented. Two years after the first visit to the
specialist, only 38 percent of the children
were less overweight than they were on their
first visit.48 The study concluded that such referrals are ineffective, and efforts should go,
instead, to developing and making available
to pediatricians early family-based, behavioral lifestyle intervention programs. The
study’s primary point, however, was not to address where the child should receive care but
to emphasize that effectively treating obesity
in children and adolescents requires a well-
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designed, multifaceted intervention program.
Given the chronic nature of obesity, frequent
visits for treatment are indispensable. The
traditional, sporadic, every-six-months visit
that a normal primary care practice provides
is not adequate. Because many obese children and adolescents also suffer from one or
more metabolic complications, the role of the
pediatric endocrinologist is critical in the
multidisciplinary approach to the problem.
Both pediatricians and patients must realize
that the goal of treatment is not the initial
weight loss alone but also weight management to achieve the best possible weight for
improved health. The growing prevalence of
childhood obesity indicates an urgent need to
develop effective strategies for prevention
and treatment.
How Well Equipped Are
Pediatricians to Handle “Adult”
Diseases?
The typical medical complications of obesity,
once confined to adulthood, are now emerging in childhood.49 During the past decade,
pediatricians were confronted with unusual
diseases like type 2 diabetes, nonalcoholic
fatty liver disease, and polycystic ovary disorder.50 To slow or reverse the increase in
childhood obesity and its associated health
risks, it is necessary to treat childhood obesity
as soon as it is detected. Given the limits to
treating long-standing obesity, early pediatric
interventions to limit excessive weight gain in
preschool and preadolescent children appear
to be the best way to tackle the problem. The
most effective way to prevent complications
of obesity in teenagers and adults is to introduce, model, and reinforce healthful behaviors and lifestyles early in childhood.
Because so many children suffer from overweight and obesity, such interventions are
most appropriately based in the primary pedi-
atric care setting, preferably with the support
of registered dietitians and structured intervention programs. Especially when caring for
the younger child, managing excessive weight
gain should be the province of the primary
care pediatrician. Although, as noted, few
overweight children are now actively treated
in the primary care setting and many are
referred to specialists, the epidemic of childhood obesity and the paucity of pediatric obesity subspecialists have overwhelmed special-
The most effective way to
prevent complications of
obesity in teenagers and
adults is to introduce, model,
and reinforce healthful
behaviors and lifestyles early
in childhood.
ized treatment programs’ capacities to handle
the demand for their services.
Because almost all children receive their
health care in primary care settings, developing effective and feasible strategies for preventing and treating childhood obesity in primary care settings offers an important
opportunity for addressing this major public
health problem. Giving the primary care
provider a major role in preventing the onset
of childhood obesity and in intervening
promptly to correct excessive weight gain is
critical. As noted, however, primary care pediatricians lack the training to care for obese
patients. Few have time to assess, intervene,
and monitor progress related to the child’s dietary, behavioral, and physical activities, especially when the doctors are generally not
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reimbursed by third-party payers either to
provide services themselves or to employ a
multidisciplinary team within their practices
to provide appropriate services.51 The clinical
system is well prepared to treat acute conditions but not chronic conditions like obesity.
Changing the Role of the Primary
Health Care Provider: A Solution
to the Prevention and Treatment of
Childhood Obesity
The number of obese children and adolescents is large and growing. These young people are in need of intensive intervention, but
clearly the burden is too large to be borne by
specialty physicians. Thus the primary care
provider’s role must be changed.
As leading authorities on the health of children in their communities, pediatricians
could play a unique role both in increasing
community awareness of the problem of
overweight and in identifying promising approaches that deserve additional testing.52
Realizing that primary care centers are not
now effectively preventing and treating obesity, the field needs to move forward. Although consensus on the best strategies for
prevention and treatment is still evolving, the
American Medical Association (AMA) has
begun to take action. Working with the
Council on Scientific Affairs (CSA) and other
associations and experts, the AMA issued a
report in 2004 on the epidemiology of obesity
and the problems it causes.53 The report included recommendations on labor force and
training, on costs and reimbursement, and on
racial disparities in treatment.
Labor Force and Training
Among its recommendations the AMA urges
physicians, managed care organizations, and
other third-party payers to recognize obesity
as a complex disorder that involves appetite
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regulation and energy metabolism and that
carries with it risks of various diseases. The
AMA is working with federal agencies, medical specialty societies, and public health organizations to educate physicians about how
to prevent and manage obesity in children
and adults, including basic principles and
practices of physical activity and nutrition
counseling. It advises that such training
should be included in undergraduate and
graduate medical education and offered
through accredited continuing medical education programs.
The AMA directs physicians to assess their patients for overweight and obesity during routine
medical examinations and to discuss with their
at-risk patients the health consequences of further weight gain. If treatment is indicated,
physicians should encourage and facilitate their
patients’ weight-maintenance or reduction efforts or refer them to a physician with special
interest in managing obesity. Physicians should
also become knowledgeable about community
resources and referral services that can help
them manage obese patients.
The AMA urges federal support for research
to determine the causes and mechanisms of
overweight and obesity; the long-term safety
and efficacy of voluntary weight maintenance
and weight-loss practices and therapies, including surgery; and the effectiveness of interventions to prevent obesity in children and
adults and of weight-loss counseling by physicians. Finally it encourages a national effort
to educate Americans about the health risks
of being overweight and obese and to provide
information about how to achieve and maintain a preferred healthy weight.
Cost and Reimbursement
To promote reimbursement for care, the
AMA exhorts federal agencies to work with
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organized medicine and the health insurance
industry to develop coding and payment
mechanisms for the evaluation and management of obesity. Reimbursement for obesity
treatment is one of the great anomalies of the
U.S. health care system. Despite the health
risks associated with obesity, patients get little support from health insurers. The low reimbursement rates preclude the long-term financial feasibility of weight-management
programs without other support or a significant proportion of patients who can pay for
care “out-of-pocket.” One study of 191 children in a hospital weight-management program found a median reimbursement rate of
11 percent, with variations from 0 to 100 percent.54 Many insurers will not cover weightloss treatments unless the patient has an obesity-related condition such as diabetes or
hyperlipidemia.
Although the reimbursement problem has
been and continues to be a critical barrier to
treating child and adolescent obesity, signs of
change are beginning to appear. The American Obesity Association (AOA), an advocacy
organization, has committed itself to expanding insurance coverage for obesity treatment.
And state policymakers are slowly beginning
to allow Medicaid treatment options for their
low-income citizens. This year, two of four
bills introduced were enacted into law. In
Iowa, Governor Tom Vilsak signed into law a
bill that requires the state’s Medicaid program to develop a strategy for providing dietary counseling to child and adult Medicaid
enrollees by July 1, 2006. Counseling and
support will be offered to assist enrollees in
developing a personal weight-loss program.
And Colorado’s governor, Bill Owens, signed
a measure establishing an obesity treatment
pilot program for Medicaid beneficiaries who
are older than fifteen and have a BMI equal
to or greater than 30. On the private side, five
states introduced legislation requiring insurers to provide or offer coverage for surgical
procedures used to treat obesity.
In keeping with the guidelines of the National Institutes of Health and other organizations, obesity should be recognized as a disease and should receive coverage for its
treatment just as other diseases do. Thirdparty payers should reimburse practitioners
for preventive counseling and management
In keeping with the
guidelines of the National
Institutes of Health and other
organizations, obesity should
be recognized as a disease
and should receive coverage
for its treatment just as other
diseases do.
programs for children that are known to be
cost-effective.
The Future of Pediatric Obesity
The key to successfully treating childhood
obesity ultimately lies in developing and
funding a targeted research agenda. At the
top of that agenda should be basic research
into the biology and physiology of regulating
appetite during the various developmental
stages of childhood. Research should also
focus on the mechanisms that regulate body
fat distribution during adolescence as well as
gender and ethnicity differences in body
composition and fat distribution. Other key
research areas include the differing susceptibility to weight gain during childhood and
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adolescence; the underlying changes in physical activity at puberty; more clinical studies
on the efficacy of specific prevention and
treatment programs; and the effort to move
from efficacy to broad effectiveness.
Until recently, childhood obesity has been
considered a clinical problem for specialist
pediatricians. Now, however, the problem
must be approached in a more global manner. The public health community must consider the urgent need to institute preventive
programs. Given the reluctance of policymakers to institute changes, particularly
those that are unpopular or expensive, it is
important to establish objective evidence of
the beneficial impact of any preventive or
treatment programs. To stop the epidemic of
childhood obesity, acting on all levels—medical, social, political, and educational—is fundamental. A broad range of action would
include conducting nutrition education campaigns, regulating the marketing of junk food
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to children, eliminating energy-dense foods
and sodas from schools, and promoting physical activity.
In an outstanding 2003 editorial in the
Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, Leona Cuttler, June Whittaker, and Eric
Kodish suggested forming a national pediatric obesity panel under the aegis of the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention, or the Institute of Medicine.55 Including representatives
of major stakeholders, the panel would shape
policy, analyze the best practices through rigorous evaluation, disseminate information accrued, revise policy at regular intervals as
new information is gained, and become a
central trusted voice. Under such a panel’s
leadership, the United States could transform its approach to treating childhood obesity and ultimately stem the epidemic that
threatens so many of the nation’s children.
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Notes
1. C. L. Ogden and K. M. Flegal, “Prevalence and Trends in Overweight among U.S. Children and Adolescents, 1999–2000,” Journal of the American Medical Association 288 (2002): 1728–32; R. P. Troiano and K.
M. Flegal, “Overweight Children and Adolescents: Description, Epidemiology and Demographics,” Pediatrics 101, no. 3, pt. 2 (1998): 497–504.
2. William Dietz, “Health Consequences of Obesity in Youth: Childhood Predictors of Adult Disease,” Pediatrics 101 (1998): 518–25; A. R. Sinaiko and others, “Relation of Weight and Rate of Increase in Weight
during Childhood and Adolescence to Body Size, Blood Pressure, Fasting Insulin, and Lipids in Young
Adults—the Minneapolis Children’s Blood Pressure Study,” Circulation 99 (1996): 1471–76; Ram Weiss
and others, “Obesity and the Metabolic Syndrome in Children and Adolescents,” New England Journal of
Medicine 350 (2004): 2362–74.
3. S. E. Barlow and others, “Treatment of Child and Adolescent Obesity: Reports from Pediatricians, Pediatric Nurse Practitioners, and Registered Dietitians,” Pediatrics 110 (2002): 229–35.
4. Ibid.; T. Bodenheimer, E. H. Wagner, and K. Grumbach, “Improving Primary Care for Patients with
Chronic Illness,” Journal of the American Medical Association 288 (2002): 1775–79; C. T. Orleans and others, “Health Promotion in Primary Care: A Survey of U.S. Family Practitioners,” Preventive Medicine 14
(1985): 636–47; R. F. Kushner, “Barriers to Providing Nutrition Counseling by Physicians,” Preventive
Medicine 24 (1995): 546–52.
5. David Young-Hyman and others, “Care Giver Perception of Children’s Obesity-Related Health Risk: A
Study of African American Families,” Obesity Research 8 (2000): 241–48.
6. Sarah Barlow and William Dietz, “Obesity Evaluation and Treatment: Expert Committee Evaluation,” Pediatrics 102, no. 3 (1998): 1–11.
7. I. Lissau and T. I. A. Sorensen, “Parental Neglect during Childhood and Increased Risk of Obesity in
Young Adulthood,” Lancet 343 (1994): 324–27; W. Kinston and others, “Interaction in Families with Obese
Children,” Journal of Psychosomatic Research 32 (1998): 513–32; S. L. Johnson and L. L. Birch, “Parents’
and Children’s Adiposity and Eating Style,” Pediatrics 94 (1994): 653–61.
8. P. W. Speiser and others, “Consensus Statement: Childhood Obesity,” Journal of Clinical Endocrinology
and Metabolism 90 (2005): 1871–87.
9. S. R. Marder and others, “Physical Health Monitoring of Patients with Schizophrenia,” American Journal
of Psychiatry 161 (2004): 1334–49.
10. D. Ludwig, K. E. Peterson, and S. Gortmaker, “Relation between Consumption of Sugar Sweetened
Drinks and Childhood Obesity: A Prospective and Observational Analysis,” Lancet 357 (2001): 505–08.
11. S. A. Bowman and others, “Effects of Fast-Food Consumption on Energy Intake and Diet Quality among
Children in a National Household Survey,” Pediatrics 113 (2004): 112–18; S. A. French, L. Harmack, and
R. W. Jeffery, “Fast-Food Restaurant Use among Women in the Pound of Prevention Study: Dietary, Behavioral and Demographic Correlates,” International Journal of Obesity-Related Metabolic Disorders 24
(2000): 1353–55.
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12. L. L. Moore and others, “Does Early Physical Activity Predict Body Fat Change throughout Childhood?”
Preventive Medicine 37 (2003): 10–17.
13. Henry
J.
Kaiser
Foundation,
“The
Role
of
Media
in
Childhood
Obesity”
(www.kff.org/
entmedia024404pkg.cfm [June 2, 2004]).
14. J. B. Schwimmer, T. M. Burwinkle, and J. W. Varni, “Health-Related Quality of Life of Severely Obese
Children and Adolescents,” Journal of the American Medical Association 289 (2003): 1813–19.
15. N. H. Falkner and others, “Social, Educational and Psychosocial Correlates of Weight Status in Adolescents,” Obesity Research 9 (2001): 32–42.
16. C. L. Odgen and others, “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2000 Growth Charts for the United
States: Improvements to the 1977 National Center for Health Statistics Version,” Pediatrics 109 (2002):
45–60.
17. W. H. Dietz and T. Robinson, “Use of BMI as a Measure of Overweight in Children and Adolescents,”
Journal of Pediatrics 132 (1998): 191–93.
18. American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Nutrition, “Prevention of Pediatric Overweight and Obesity,” Pediatrics 112 (2003): 424–30.
19. Barlow and others, “Treatment of Child and Adolescent Obesity” (see note 3).
20. Karen B. Dorsey and others, “Diagnosis, Evaluation and Treatment of Childhood Obesity in Pediatric
Practice,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 159 (2005): 632–38; Stephen Cook and others,
“Screening and Counseling Associated with Obesity Diagnosis in a National Survey of Ambulatory Pediatric Visits,” Pediatrics 116 (2005): 112–16.
21. Evelyn P. Whitlock and others, “Screening and Interventions for Childhood Overweight: A Summary of
Evidence for the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force,” Pediatrics 116 (2005): 125–44.
22. Nancy Krebs, “Screening for Overweight in Children and Adolescents: A Call for Action,” Pediatrics 116
(2005): 238–39.
23. A. L. Rosenbloom, “Emerging Epidemic of Type 2 Diabetes in Youth,” Diabetes Care 22, no. 2 (1999):
345–54.
24. American Diabetes Association, “Type 2 Diabetes in Children and Adolescents: Consensus Conference
Report,” Diabetes Care 23 (2000): 381–89.
25. Speiser and others, “Consensus Statement: Childhood Obesity” (see note 8).
26. J. Anjal, “What Works for Obesity? A Summary of the Research behind Obesity Interventions,” British
Medical Journal (April 30, 2004).
27. L. H. Epstein and others, “Ten-Year Follow-up of Behavioral, Family-Based Treatment for Obese Children,” Journal of the American Medical Association 264 (1990): 2519–23; H. Bjorvell and S. Rossner, “A
Ten-Year Follow-up of Weight Change in Severely Obese Subjects Treated in a Combined Behavioral
Modification Program,” International Journal of Obesity 16 (1992): 623–25.
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28. L. H. Epstein and others, “A Five-Year Follow-up of Family-Based Behavioral Treatments for Childhood
Obesity,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 58 (1990): 661–64; L. H. Epstein and others,
“Family-Based Behavioral Weight Control in Obese Young Children,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 86 (1986): 481–84.
29. Epstein, “Family-Based Behavioral Weight Control” (see note 28); A. Valoski and L. H. Epstein, “Nutrient
Intake of Obese Children in a Family-Based Behavioral Weight Control Program,” International Journal of
Obesity 14 (1990): 667–77.
30. Epstein and others, “A Five-Year Follow-up” (see note 28).
31. G. D. Foster and others, “A Randomized Trial of a Low-Carbohydrate Diet for Obesity,” New England
Journal of Medicine 348 (2003): 2082–90; S. B. Sondike, N. Copperman, and M. S. Jacobson, “Effects of a
Low-Carbohydrate Diet on Weight Loss and Cardiovascular Risk Factor in Overweight Adolescents,” Journal of Pediatrics 142 (2003): 253–58.
32. Foster and others, “A Randomized Trial” (see note 31).
33. D. Ludwig, K. E. Peterson, and S. Gortmaker, “Relation between Consumption of Sugar-Sweetened
Drinks and Childhood Obesity: A Prospective and Observational Analysis,” Lancet 357 (2001): 505–08.
34. C. B. Ebbeling and others, “A Reduced–Glycemic Load Diet in the Treatment of Adolescent Obesity,”
Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 157 (2003): 773–79.
35. W. H. Dietz and S. L. Gortmaker, “Do We Fatten Our Children at the Television Set?” Pediatrics 75, no. 5
(1985): 807–12; R. C. Kleges, M. L. Shelton, and L. M. Kleges, “Effects of Television on Metabolic Rate:
Potential Implications for Childhood Obesity,” Pediatrics 91 (1993): 281–86; T. N. Robinson, “Reducing
Children’s Television Viewing to Prevent Obesity: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” Journal of the American Medical Association 282, no. 16 (1999): 1561–67.
36. Jack Yanovsky, “Intensive Therapies for Pediatric Obesity,” Pediatric Clinics of North America 48 (2001):
1041–53.
37. “Clinical Guidelines on the Identification, Evaluation, and Treatment of Overweight and Obesity in
Adults—the Evidence Report,” Obesity Research suppl. 2 (1998): 51S–209S; “Consensus Statement:
Childhood Obesity,” Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism 90 (2005): 1871–87.
38. R. I. Berkowitz and others, “Behavior Therapy and Sibutramine for the Treatment of Adolescent Obesity,”
Journal of the American Medical Association 289 (2003): 1805–12.
39. A. Matos-Godoy and others, “Treatment of Obese Adolescents with Sibutramine: A Randomized, DoubleBlind, Controlled Study,” Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism 90 (2005): 1460–65.
40. Berkowitz and others, “Behavior Therapy and Sibutramine” (see note 38).
41. Jean-Pierre Chanoine and others, “Effect of Orlistat on Weight and Body Composition in Obese Adolescents,” Journal of the American Medical Association 293 (2005): 2873–83.
42. R. A. DeFronzo, “Pharmacologic Therapy for Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus,” Annals of Internal Medicine 133
(2000): 73–74.
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43. M. Freemark and D. Bursey, “The Effects of Metformin on Body Mass Index and Glucose Tolerance in
Obese Adolescents with Fasting Hyperinsulinemia and a Family History of Type 2 Diabetes,” Pediatrics
107 (2001): 1–7; J. P. Kay and others, “Beneficial Effects of Metformin in Normoglycemic Morbidly Obese
Adolescents,” Pediatrics 50, no. 12 (2001): 1457–61.
44. I. S. Farooqi and S. O’Rahilly, “Recent Advances in the Genetics of Severe Childhood Obesity,” Archives of
Disease in Childhood 83 (2000): 31–34; C. Vaisse and others, “Melanocortin 4 Receptor Mutations Are a
Frequent and Heterogeneous Cause of Morbid Obesity,” Journal of Clinical Investigation 106 (2000):
253–62; C. D. Sjostrom and others, “Swedish Obese Subjects (SOS). Recruitment for an Intervention
Study and Selection Description of the Obese State,” International Journal of Obesity-Related Metabolic
Disorders 16 (1992): 465–79.
45. Sjostrom and others, “Swedish Obese Subjects” (see note 44).
46. J. S. Torgerson and C. D. Sjostrom, “The Swedish Obese Study: Rationale and Results,” International Journal of Obesity-Related Metabolic Disorders 25, suppl. 1 (2001): S2–S4.
47. T. H. Inge and others, “A Multidisciplinary Approach to the Adolescent Bariatric Surgical Patient,” Journal
of Pediatric Surgery 39 (2004): 442–47; H. J. Sugerman and others, “Bariatric Surgery for Severely Obese
Adolescents,” Journal of Gastrointestinal Surgery 7 (2003): 102–07.
48. T. Quattrin and others, “Obese Children Who Are Referred to the Pediatric Endocrinologist: Characteristics and Outcome,” Pediatrics 115, no. 2 (2005): 348–51.
49. Speiser and others, “Consensus Statement” (see note 8).
50. Ibid.
51. A. M. Tershacovec and others, “Insurance Reimbursement for the Treatment of Obesity in Children,”
Journal of Pediatrics 134 (1999): 573–78.
52. Steven Teutsch and Peter Briss, “Spanning the Boundary between Clinics and Communities to Address
Overweight and Obesity in Children,” Pediatrics 116 (2005): 240–41.
53. American Medical Association, “Report 8 of the Council on Scientific Affairs (A-04),” Actions on Obesity,
June 2004 (www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/category/13653.html [December 12, 2005]).
54. Tershacovec and others, “Insurance Reimbursement” (see note 51).
55. Leona Cuttler, June Whittaker, and Eric Kodish, “Pediatric Obesity Policy: The Danger of Skepticism,”
Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 157 (2003): 722-24.
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THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN
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